Sam McBride: Shackled to Brexit, Arlene Foster can’t admit that it has been disastrous for Union – but Irish Sea border is radically reshaping NI

Just three weeks into 2021, it is becoming increasingly evident that the most significant constitutional event this year will not be the centenary commemorations marking Northern Ireland’s founding, but the far-reaching implications of the Irish Sea border.

Sunday, 24th January 2021, 10:35 am
Arlene Foster described border posts as “mythical” prior to Brexit – but now that they are here she can’t admit her huge strategic error

It is evidence of unionism’s weakened and leaderless state that within a matter of days Arlene Foster has lurched between talking down the significance of the new trade frontier and promoting the “opportunities” it brings to pushing for the border to be immediately removed.

Puzzlingly, there is an alternative which the DUP itself identified almost two years ago – but embracing that would require the consumption of humble pie, and that is a dish which has never been to Mrs Foster’s taste.

But first, it is worth revisiting what Arlene Foster told voters days before the EU referendum. Writing in this newspaper, she urged people to “grasp the opportunity of a generation and vote to leave”.

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The First Minister said that she wanted to rebut the “shameful” claims of the Remain campaign in relation to the border. Highlighting widespread support for the continuation of the Common Travel Area – which allows people to move freely between the UK and Ireland – Mrs Foster asked: “So how will these mythical border posts appear?”

While the free movement of people continues, the far more complicated question of where a trade frontier would be sited did not appear to concern the DUP leader – despite her seven years as economy minister exposing her the to the complexity of 21st century trade.

Now for more than three weeks new Border Control Posts built at a cost of £50 million have been operating at Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint ports – and one of Mrs Foster’s ministers is responsible for the officials manning those border posts.

No one is starving as a result of Brexit and Northern Ireland remains constitutionally a part of the Union. Some of the problems which have disrupted trade since January 1 have already been, or will be, resolved.

However, it is already clear that even if the border erected 22 days ago does not result in economic disaster, it has the potential to radically re-orient Northern Ireland’s economy away from Great Britain and towards Ireland and the rest of the EU.

The Irish Sea border is a disincentive to what until now has been routine internal UK trade. Some of that trade will continue – either because the product can only be bought from GB, or because the buyer judges that even with the cost of the new bureaucracy it is still cheaper to do so than to look to the EU.

There will be economic benefits for the firms which can most quickly adapt to the new regime – but those benefits will be offset by increased consumer cost and reduced choice.

The Daily Telegraph this week quoted an EU official openly marketing what has always appeared to be an obvious outcome of the new border: “People [in NI] now need to adapt to changes. The only way to avoid controls is to source things through the EU from now on.”

Earlier this month the News Letter revealed that Sainsbury’s had withdrawn hundreds of items from sale in Northern Ireland and replaced them with Spar-branded goods normally sold on filling station convenience stores. A lengthening number of GB retailers are doing likewise. Those who continue to sell here are in many cases increasing prices due to the added cost of the new red tape.

Yet last week Mrs Foster said: “I did notice that Sainsbury’s had taken some of the Spar products into their shops in Northern Ireland, I don’t see that as a negative.”

While there is an obvious benefit for those who produce Spar items in Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster is celebrating a reduction in choice for consumers – despite herself having last year repeatedly identified a loss of consumer choice as a key threat from the Irish Sea border which had to be avoided.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Mrs Foster’s stance is in line with the sort of isolationist economics which would see us all eating potatoes, only being able to buy Northern Ireland-made cars and restarting the Ulster linen industry. Yes, it would increase local production – but consumers would lose much of what is today on our shelves.

Mrs Foster appears torn between talking up the benefits of the current arrangements while simultaneously vowing to overturn them at the first opportunity when MLAs get to vote on them in four years’ time.

No party when campaigning for votes will acknowledge the weaknesses in its arguments. Nevertheless, there is a striking contrast between the pre-plebiscite certitude of Mrs Foster and other Brexiteers about the land of milk and honey which was over the horizon and the reality of more than four years of technical wrangling, emotionally-charged division, strain on the Union, and ultimately the imposition of a major Irish Sea trade border.

Other unionists who backed Brexit – and there were many, from Jim Allister to Lord Trimble – can at least point to having had scant influence over how the government implemented the referendum decision. But the DUP boasted of its clout and essentially chose Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister just months after he had betrayed them by voting for a version of the Irish Sea border which he had said was unthinkable.

Almost two years ago, after Mr Johnson and the right-wing ERG group of Tory MPs abandoned the DUP to vote for Theresa May’s proposed EU deal, the then DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds warned that the DUP was open to abandoning Brexit if it kept the UK constitutionally and economically intact.

Mr Dodds told Newsnight: “I would stay in the European Union and remain, rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position. That’s how strongly I feel about the Union...the [Brexit] answer must be something that works for the whole of the United Kingdom – that’s our first and main priority.”

The message shocked some Brexiteers who had failed to comprehend that the DUP’s preference for Brexit – even a hard Brexit – was secondary to its ideological belief in the Union. Yet what Mr Dodds had said was wholly logical – even for a unionist party which wanted to see Brexit if it could be delivered in a way which did not harm the Union.

However, for reasons which have yet to be explained, something happened within the DUP and that position was rapidly cast aside.

By the time of the decisive December 2019 general election – a point by which Mr Johnson had betrayed the DUP for a second time there was no talk at all from the DUP about switching to argue for Brexit to be called off.

Abandoning Brexit at that point, when the democratic vote had not yet been implemented, could itself have caused a constitutionally-destabilising backlash against Northern Ireland.

However, now that the UK has left the EU – but Northern Ireland in large part has not – it is striking to see how wedded to Brexit the DUP has become. Having said that the Union was more important than Brexit, its current stance points to the reverse being true.

Even DUP hopes of voting down the NI Protocol in four years may not see the full removal of the Irish Sea border and could instead simply see another UK-EU deal done over unionism’s head.

Of course, the DUP is in no position to force the UK back into the EU – although a pro-Brexit party U-turning would be compelling – and such a rapid return would be nationally humiliating. But the DUP’s role in arguing for Brexit was never decisive, either. Rather, it was about the principles involved.

Even as the evidence of how disastrous Brexit has been unfolds in empty shop shelves and an internal UK economic barrier so onerous that on Thursday DUP minister Edwin Poots set out four new processes required just to bring hay across the Irish Sea, the DUP leadership is unable to accept that this decision has been strategically calamitous.

But, like a debtor ignoring demands for payment, putting off the day of reckoning will not make it go away.

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