Sam McBride: A curious and dangerous week ends with a first hint of hope for unionists hoping to remove the Irish Sea border

On Monday a confluence of events weakened Arlene Foster’s grip on the DUP leadership, exposed the vulnerability of the new Irish Sea border, saw a temporary halt to checks at that new border, and culminated in a dangerous message to those seeking to use guns to influence policy.

Saturday, 6th February 2021, 7:01 am
Anti-Irish Sea border and anti-DUP graffiti has been appearing across Northern Ireland – along with more sinister messages. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

That morning a poll for the Belfast Telegraph put the DUP just one percentage point ahead of Alliance and just nine points ahead of the TUV. For Mrs Foster it presented a nightmarish scene of support deserting not in one direction but simultaneously to Alliance on the left and the TUV on the right.

Even allowing for caveats about the accuracy of polls, the dramatic message that morning unnerved many DUP members – particularly because, as one senior member said privately that night, it confirmed what they had been picking up for some time.

That evening, news emerged that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council – on which the DUP is the largest party – had suddenly withdrawn its staff from the border post in Larne because of graffiti describing them as “targets”. Shortly after that, the DUP said that Edwin Poots, its minister responsible for most of the new border checks, was resigning at midnight to have surgery for cancer.

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That news was rapidly followed not only by the announcement that prior to leaving office Mr Poots had withdrawn his staff from the Larne and Belfast checks, but by a claim from loyalist Jamie Bryson that Mrs Foster had tried to stop Mr Poots from taking that action and removed him from office against his will.

Although Mr Bryson is not a member of the DUP, he is someone to whom senior DUP members have leaked at key moments – most notably in 2015 when his allegations about the then leader Peter Robinson (which Mr Robinson strongly denied) contributed to destabilising the then first minister, who resigned a few months later. The DUP press office immediately denied Mr Bryson’s claims emphatically, releasing ten words from Mr Poots: “This is nonsense on both fronts and is completely untrue”.

Whatever was going on within the DUP on Monday, it is now clear that Mr Poots’ decision that evening was far more political than was apparent at the time. The graffiti had appeared 11 days earlier but there does not appear to have been any particular concern from police that it represented an immediate threat to lives. But by last Sunday – two days after the EU moved to trigger Article 16 of the NI Protocol to control vaccines exports – Mr Poots phoned his most senior official, Denis McMahon, to express concern for the safety of the staff.

Mr Poots, who six months ago briefly flirted with ordering his officials not to operate the border before backing down, told Mr McMahon that in conversations with politicians, a local government officer, and “other stakeholders who reported threats” he had become alarmed. Some time after that call Mr Poots contacted the police.

On Monday night, just hours before he left office, Mr Poots again rang Mr McMahon to ask for the staff to be withdrawn from Belfast and Larne ports because he was “not convinced that the PSNI had a full understanding of the risk”, Mr McMahon told a Stormont committee on Thursday. Although there was no advice from police to do so, and a meeting with the PSNI was to take place the following day, the decision was implemented immediately.

Therefore, remarkably, the security assessment did not come from the police but came from Mr Poots.

Subsequently, the police have stressed that they do not believe the graffiti was linked to paramilitaries.

Mr Poots did not stop the checks as a point of political principle, but explicitly because of the threat, creating the danger that further threats are inadvertently encouraged.

But it is also clear that there is anger and dismay among most of those unionists and loyalists who abhor such behaviour. Those for whom Brexit was a boring debate about an amorphous concept now realise that it impacts them practically – whether trying to buy a packet of seeds, finding their usual food in the supermarket, or ordering alcohol online.

But for those who feel keenly unionist, and especially for that section of unionism which feels that its position is constantly weakening, there is layered on that the constitutional message that they are being cut off from Britain and pushed closer to the rest of the island of Ireland.

It is extraordinary that no one in London, Dublin or Brussels comprehended the constitutional sensitivity of banning British soil from Northern Ireland – particularly because of the absurdity of the rule (extended to even a few particles on a bare root plant) in purely scientific terms due to of the continued freedom to move EU soil here from 2,500 miles away.

The last time unionism felt this uneasy was the vote to curtail the flying of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall nine years ago. But whereas that decision – which led to weeks of street protests, political instability and disorder – centred around a symbol which had no practical impact on the lives of the protesters, the sea border is both emotional and practical and has been put there by an openly dishonest prime minister.

Even before the reality of the new arrangements became widely apparent, four months ago a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said the security services feared that “Brexit could also reignite the threat from loyalist groups that have previously held a ceasefire”.

The report referred to MI5 analysis which began by saying that loyalist ceasefires “have held for a long time now” but the rest of that sentence was censored.

Some loyalists – but by no means all – have no moral qualms about ending human life. But even to such people for whom the end justifies murderous means, the implications of such action would be self-defeating. Even thuggish threats are likely to exacerbate the trend of DUP voters moving directly from that party to Alliance. But if they were to succeed in killing a border worker that almost certainly would not stop the border. In fact, such a tragedy would probably irrevocably undermine the political campaign against the border, just as the murders of the Quinn children moved most of unionism to the view that parading at Drumcree was not worth such barbarity.

Many present problems have their roots in the DUP simplistically backing Brexit with no real appreciation of its complexity or clear agenda for how it should be delivered.

Rather than careful analysis of the single market, the customs union, sectoral alignment, and many of the other boringly technical debates to have dominated the last four and a half years, senior DUP figures batted away awkward questions with a populist promise that if people voted to leave the EU then everything would be better.

When forced to confront those questions after the referendum – and then when in a position to influence the answers to those questions – the DUP gave no sense of coherent independent thought beyond that of the ERG, on which it increasingly relied but whose agenda would ultimately diverge from its own.

But now it is on the DUP’s shoulders that the responsibility for showing that politics can unravel some of its self-created mess rests. This week the government changed course dramatically, asking the EU to effectively delay parts of the new border for two years by extending various ‘grace periods’ and overturning some checks, such as those on plants.

That will not remove the border. However, if after two years there is no significant evidence of prohibited goods flooding across the Irish border, then it strengthens the hand of unionists, business and the government to say to the EU that those parts of the Irish Sea border are unnecessary to protect the EU market.

The stakes here are high. Whatever one’s view on Brexit, it has undermined the Union.

Unionism cannot afford another strategic error of that magnitude.

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