Northern Irish unionists are united against the protocol

22 July 2021

11:30 PM

22 July 2021

11:30 PM

The DUP’s departed leader Edwin Poots spoke in his valedictory interview of a ‘significant victory’ heading unionism’s way regarding its bête noire, the Northern Ireland protocol.

The outright, irrevocable removal of the ‘sea border’ imposed by the protocol has become the fundamental objective of all shades of political unionism and loyalism.

Anti-protocol street art garlanded two deeply different citadels of unionism in the past week — the working-class heartland of Belfast’s Shankill Road and the affluent County Down village of Killyleagh. There is a sense of shared purpose.

Given the briefing that went before it, the good burghers of both places were no doubt expectant when the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis stood up to outline the government’s thinking on the protocol. Was it the victory that Edwin Poots promised?

The message implicit in the government’s command paper is ‘give us time’. Both Lewis and David Frost’s emphasis was that renegotiation — rather than the immediate smashing of the Article 16 glass — was the preferred option, echoing the ‘alternative arrangements’ cry of some in bygone Brexit negotiations of yore.

The reaction of the EU, the Irish government and their sympathisers in the House of Commons was typical in its outright hostility, with the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood describing it predictably as a ‘shameless position’ and the Alliance’s histrionic Stephen Farry crying bluster and revisionism.

The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, the man for whom much of the announcement was intended, was more receptive. Describing the statement as ‘welcome, significant and important’, he was keen to emphasise that ‘tinkering around the edges simply does not work’ and called on the government to invoke Article 16 should the negotiations fail.

Donaldson needs a win, that much is clear — and the cautious welcome from previously agitated elements of unionism suggests a confidence that despite the EU’s denouncement and the gnashing of teeth of their cheerleaders in Dublin and Northern Ireland, a change is coming.

But is it? Given the treatment unionists have — for want of a better word — enjoyed since Boris Johnson assumed office, the DUP and their folk should be wary about trusting this government’s manoeuvres; promises of the best of both worlds and no sea border remain fresh in the mind.

The sense that something is happening buys Donaldson and the DUP time but he needs more meat on the bone. What is the specific nature of the light touch alternative being proposed by Frost and Lewis?

A crucial question, which seems to have slipped off the collective unionist radar, is what enticements elsewhere will be offered to Dublin and Brussels to get a symbolic victory that calms the horses? Some mischievous voices have suggested that Leo Varadkar — who will return to the role of Taoiseach in 2022 under the Republic’s coalition deal — may take a more sympathetic approach than he did in 2019 following a recent pledge to ‘go the extra mile’ to find fixes to the Protocol. But again, at what price?

The Loyalist Communities Council — the umbrella body for loyalist paramilitary organisations which remain on the scene — has said it will ‘await the response from Dublin and Brussels before determining if there should be any resumption and escalation of protest action here’. The rights and wrongs of those organisations being a continuing fact of life in Northern Ireland are deeply contested, but they alight on a crucial point — what if this new endeavour by the government delivers nothing? The DUP still has much to lose as a result of this high stakes approach.

Published the day before parliament departs for recess, this vague command paper and the constructive ambiguity around it will leave many on the Shankill, in Killyleagh and beyond sceptical about what it will achieve. The scent of the classic Northern Irish political fudge hangs in the air, with the key question being whether the government delivers a victory significant enough for the DUP to bring unionism back onside.

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