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

Have the Unionists just signed away peace in Northern Ireland?

A loss of faith in the legal system could trigger resurgent loyalist violence
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.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

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.

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Joe Blow
Joe Blow
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

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.

Last edited 1 year ago by Joe Blow
David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
1 year ago

“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

pshields
pshields
1 year ago

A couple of things to consider (as a NI “unionist” living in NI):
1. Constitutional dreams don’t put bread on the table – we need pragmatic and workable solutions that allow strong economic performance in NI.
2. The Union is a “busted flush” – with increased devolution in the various countries and likelihood of Scottish independence, we need to start to plan based on that reality.
3. The unionist parties only speak for a small and marginal community within NI and unionism, yet they use the threat of violence to demand change – if they were able to have perspective, they might see benefits in the current protocol (most semi-intelligent people knew this was the likely outcome once the Brexit vote was taken and have been working out how to maximise the benefits of being in both EU and UK)
4. Most businesses are already working around the protocol problems – sourcing customers and suppliers both in Ireland (and Europe) and Britain.

So, DUP, UUP and TUV … why not put more effort into making the NIP work to our advantage ?

Last edited 1 year ago by pshields
M Spahn
M Spahn
1 year ago
Reply to  pshields

To an outsider such as myself it seems a peculiar thing. The Scots-Irish are hellbent on remaining in a union with the English that the Scots themselves are keen to leave.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  pshields

You hit the nail on the head!

“why not put more effort into making the NIP work to our advantage?”

I have a sneaking suspicion that the DUP’s campaign in the upcoming Assembly elections will be based on “vote for us – the only party who can get rid of the NI Protocol”. They have a lot of ground to make up (RHI/Cash for Ash, disregard for business & agriculture during the Brexit process, current supply chain problems, and assorted whiffs of corruption), and they feel they need the fear and anger to bring out their core voters.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul N
Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  pshields

I seem to be stuck in a m0derati0n queue… no doubt my reply will be along soon…

Red Reynard
Red Reynard
1 year ago

Two things strike me about the current situation;
First, there is no border between any of the Nations of the UK, and to place an arbitrary one down the middle of a puddle is a nonsense. There has always been a border between the Republic of Eire and the United Kingdom (N.I.), which (but for the purpose of weapons checks that are no longer necessary) remained largely invisible through the ‘Common Travel Area’. Now, since the EU’s own study found (2016 if memory serves) that no border infrastructure would be necessary (given the political will) using technology, such as the e-TIR/CTS systems; the placing of the line in the puddle is unnecessary. Simply draw a nice white line across the road, and be done with it. If the E.U. are worried about goods travelling out of the U.K. into the E.U., then let them structure according to their wishes.
Second, aren’t both governments (U.K. and R.o.I.) allowing the tail to wag the dog? Surely the only threat to ‘the peace process’ is from those Neanderthals who operate outside of the law – which means that the International Relations agenda for both governments is being set by the criminals. Just a couple of thoughts.
All the best.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

This paints the unionists as victims of the evil Boris Johnson seeking his own benefit. But lets be real, Theresa May tried to show some kind of loyalty to them and they mercilessly destroyed her, even after she renegotiated the agreement at great personal political cost to prevent a border in the Irish sea. They made the genius decision to join the ERG and Johnson to vote against it foolishly expecting some kind of quid-pro-quo from the Dominic Cummings school of political warfare. Like the Lib Dems before them they tried to maximise their influence and got their hands burned by their own stupidity and lack of political acumen. As far as I see they made the bed and now they have to lie in it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Jim Dempsey
Jim Dempsey
1 year ago

The problem is bigger than the NI protocol. Unionists have realized that not for the first time the Conservative and Unionist party does not give a damn about NI and would be rid of the place and it’s backward thinking Unionist and loyalist groups in the morning it it was politically possible. (The chance of Scotland voting to leave the union will give them this opportunity). The legal challenge is their way of making a “stand”. Of course the pragmatic thing to do is take advantage of the protocol and unique trading position NI is now in (could be much better if they had supported what was offered to Mrs. May.)

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Dempsey

The ‘pragmatic’ thing is the idea put forward by A that B should do what A wants even when B doesn’t want it because it is in B’s [usually economic] ‘best interest’, even though B doesn’t actually see it like that. It’s what ‘elites’ tell the proletariat and why they can’t understand it if the proles don’t do as they want

Ian Ogden
Ian Ogden
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Dempsey

I am a Conservative and I do give give into the idea that peace is worth defending. So there should be a land border and the UK need not put up a physical barrier. If certain people want to physically oppose the border then they if breaking our laws should be dealt with. NI is as much a part of the United Kingdom as the other three parts. As for the protocol it has not prevented violence or helped the UK so it should be be abandoned and the EU can deal with their side of the border as they wish.

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Ogden

We agree on something:

the idea that peace is worth defending.

Sadly your suggestion doesn’t defend peace. It wouldn’t even work.
If we abandon the NI protocol and NI effectively leaves the EU single market, and if we don’t negotiate a replacement treaty that solves the same problem, then for incoming goods the UK must either charge tariffs or (under WTO rules) they must allow everyone tariff-free access to the UK – in which case there goes any remaining domestic industry (and any leverage in negotiating access to other markets). And for outbound goods (NI to RoI) the EU has to apply its existing rules to NI, as required by its founding treaties.
Mrs May’s Brexit deal (whatever its problems) would not have had this issue. There would have been no border in the Irish Sea (or in Larne, Belfast, Cairnryan, Liverpool, etc).

Last edited 1 year ago by Paul N
John McClelland
John McClelland
1 year ago

What Johnson et al don’t realise is that by surrendering to the Eu & Ireland’s threats of a return to violence for implementing customs on or near the international recognised border where an economic border already exists with different tax laws and currency never mind the road signs,but instead inserting the hard border in the Irish Sea ,putting customs posts within its own country ,is that they have put into motion the break up of our union. The unionist community in Northern Ireland and a large percentage of Scottish unionists are pretty much the same people & they are watching this treachery with incredulous anger and a belief that this government has no interest in the rights of unionists in NI & therefore no interest in them as well. Loyalty is a two way street & this government has no loyalty to this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shame on them

Paul N
Paul N
1 year ago

It’s not

 “the Eu & Ireland’s threats of a return to violence”

The threat is from republican terrorists in Northern Ireland (many of whom are arguably British citizens). This is a problem for the UK, caused by the UK’s actions.
It’s deeply unfortunate that this was not considered a little more (or indeed at all) by Brexit campaigners during the referendum campaign.

 “they [the government] have put into motion the break up of our union”

Sadly, I suspect you’re right about the effect. Though the potential breakup was put in motion by Brexit, and is only further encouraged by the internal border.
“unionists are… watching this treachery with incredulous anger”
The anger I can understand. The incredulity, not so much. Some Unionists (and many nationalists) have been warning about this since 2016. A province that exists “by consent” is not made more secure by undermining nationalist consent – and politicising the Irish border (which is fundamental to Brexit) was always going to do just that.

“this government has no loyalty to this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland shame on them”

As a Northern Ireland Unionists, I agree with you!

Pierre Pendre
Pierre Pendre
1 year ago

The more problems Brexit creates the better as far as the unforgiving Brussels bureaucracy is concerned. Violence in NI won’t affect them.