by Henry Hill
Tuesday, 23
February 2021
Reaction
14:30

Have the Unionists just signed away peace in Northern Ireland?

by Henry Hill
The government has sent a bad signal about what gets things done in Ulster. Credit: Getty

When Boris Johnson shamelessly u-turned on his opposition to a border in the Irish Sea, he must have thought he was buying himself an easy Brexit.

But as the reality of what he signed up to sinks in, it’s becoming clear that the decision could yet haunt the rest of his premiership.

Amongst unionists, opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol — the arrangement which aligns the Province economically with the European Union — is intense. Early signs that the big parties would try and make it work are long gone as the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice party rises in the polls.

Now the TUV has joined with the dominant Democratic Unionists and the moderate Ulster Unionists to back a legal challenge to the whole thing.

Their case, drafted with the help of the Province’s former Attorney General, is unlikely to succeed. It rests on controversial constitutional theories which, having been invented by progressives, are unlikely to be used to help so unfashionable a case as Ulster unionism.

Unionism’s leaders clearly feel boxed in. Far from being ‘light touch’ checks, the Protocol has seen supermarkets forced to stop selling British food. As the EU continues to pass new Single Market legislation, the gulf between Northern Ireland and the mainland can only widen.

Now Peter Robinson, the ex-DUP leader and former First Minister, has raised the prospects that they might collapse the Northern Ireland Assembly.

This is a well-worn Sinn Fein tactic. But the republicans were always angling for concessions, usually money-related, that London was ultimately (and not always rightly) willing to give. If the Protocol really is written in stone and unionists walk out over it, Stormont may not come back.

And if organised unionism loses faith in the political process, beyond that lies the threat of resurgent loyalist violence — of which there are already some worrying signs.

From the start, the line spun by Dublin and Brussels has been that their maximalist interpretation of the UK’s commitment to maintain an invisible Irish border was all about safeguarding the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement. But it’s difficult to square this with an outcome that has David Trimble, the man who won a Nobel Prize for leading unionism to the table, saying this in the Irish Times:

“They believe, by invoking the hard-won agreement that I helped negotiate 23 years ago, they can justify the indefensible attack on the rights and livelihood of all Northern Ireland citizens that the unprecedented and unreasonable protocol requirements impose on the part of the UK in which I live.”
- David Trimble, The Irish Times

After the Prime Minister’s shameless u-turn on an Irish Sea border, and Michael Gove’s failure to secure any meaningful concessions after the fact, there’s little reason to suspect Downing Street is much more animated by unionist concerns than the EU has proven. But if they’ll have no choice but to confront the issue if the Province’s British community revolt.

For years, unionists have watched Sinn Fein stall the institutions to extract prizes from London. During the negotiations, loyalists will have seen how the need to avoid republican attacks on a land border were elevated to an imperative case for the Irish Sea alternative.

By once again comprehensively failing to fight their corner, the Government may have sent them a very bad signal about what gets things done for Ulster.

Join the discussion


  • “We stand on the brink of a great achievement. In this Ireland there is no solution to be found to our disagreements by shooting each other. There is no real invader here. We are all Irish in all our different kinds of ways. We must not, now or ever in the future, show anything to each other except tolerance, forbearance and neighbourly love.” -John Hume

  • Boris Johnson did let the Unionists down but he was already boxed in by May’s mistakes and had to make a kind of Hobson’s choice: sell out on the Unionists and hope for pragmatic action by the EU in terms of goods checks OR fail to deliver Brexit and have a huge revolt across the UK and irreparable damage to people’s confidence in British political institutions. He chose the lesser evil. I also believe that the deal was taken in the unspoken expectation that the EU would go overboard on the checks, causing political instability in NI and the NIP’s eventual suspension or collapse…and leading to the renegotiation the UK government tried, but failed to get. So I don’t think the UK government is indifferent to the unionist cause: they are being forced into playing a risky long game by a negotiating partner that doesn’t want to negotiate and is playing a game of might is right.

  • May’s legacy is a terrible one. She did lasting damage: yet another demonstration of the dangers of appeasement and capitulation.
    Arguably no PM in the last 100 years did more damage than Blair, but she comes in not far behind.

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