by Frank Schnittger
Fri Oct 1st, 2021 at 11:55:24 AM EST
Seamus Mallon, former deputy leader of the SDLP, once famously described the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement as Sunningdale for slow learners, in reference to an earlier power sharing agreement signed in Sunningdale in 1973, and which was allowed to collapse by the Labour British government of the time due to rioting and a general strike organised by loyalists.
Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister, Leaders of the DUP and TUV respectively have now penned an Op Ed published in the Irish Times in which they raise the possibility of violence and state that the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement must go. For those that have followed the "dreary steeples" of Northern Ireland politics for many years, it is like Déjà Vu all over again.
Nevertheless I felt constrained to write a letter to the Editor of the Irish Independent which is currently their most read article on the letters page and which has inspired a supportive letter in response.
Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister must own consequences of Brexit
Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister complain that a central pillar of the Belfast Agreement is that "it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland, save with the consent of the majority of its people".
They are, of course, perfectly correct, if the proposed change is the creation of a united Ireland, something that is not currently at issue. Otherwise, the laws passed by the UK parliament are currently binding on Northern Ireland.
But where was their concern for the democratic consent of the people of Northern Ireland when they went gung-ho in pursuit of Brexit, despite the opposition of a large majority in Northern Ireland?
The Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement is the direct result of the Brexit they pursued with their allies in the Tory Party, signed, sealed and ratified on behalf of all the people of the UK and without any input from the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In fact, the protocol actually gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a role in foreign and trade policy for the first time, by allowing it to determine the future of the protocol every four years.
Now their problem appears to be that it can do so on a majority basis. But where was their concern for cross-community support on Brexit itself?
It appears Mr Donaldson and Mr Allister are only in favour of democracy when the people or their representatives support their own political views and feel free to ignore them when they don't. They demand a veto for unionists while ignoring nationalists and the democratic majority in Northern Ireland.
Their new-found support for the Belfast Agreement is also doubly hypocritical. First, they opposed it all their political lives, and second, they have refused to operate its North/South institutions, which are an integral part of the agreement.
They would have more credibility if all the terms of the Belfast Agreement were fully operational, and, in particular, if a majority in Northern Ireland were to vote for a united Ireland. They would then have legitimate concerns to discuss with the rest of Ireland.
But blaming the Irish Government for the terms of a Brexit agreement negotiated between their allies in the UK government and the EU does not enhance their international credibility.
It was they who wanted Brexit, and now they must own its consequences.
Writing in response in today's Irish Independent, Declan Foley writes Unionists need to face facts on what Brexit really entails
Frank Schnittger states unavoidable facts - not alone for the duo of unionist `leaders' - but for the people of the island of Ireland (`Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister must own consequences of Brexit,' Letters, September 30). Mr Schnittger hits the nail on the head when he states: "It appears Mr Donaldson and Mr Allister are only in favour of democracy when the people or their representatives support their own political views and feel free to ignore them when they don't."
This has been the case with unionism/Protestantism in Northern Ireland since 1921. Nothing was learned from the abolition of Stormont in March 1972: alas, neither did the governments or civil service of the UK learn anything.
The simple fact of unionist politics is they fear the future, a future which they refuse to participate in. They imagine that not alone should the UK meet their demands but that the EU, the US and the Commonwealth should also. With the aftermath of Brexit becoming clearer by the minute the unionists of Northern Ireland need to exchange La La Land politics for realpolitik.
The Tories of England have their `Merrie Olde Englande'; once Northern Ireland begins to become an economic albatross, they will, without an iota of conscience walk away. (Look at the massive cuts in armed forces).
Declan Foley, Melbourne, Australia
As explained by unionist commentator, Newton Emerson, in yesterday's Irish Times, DUP so compromised by Brexit that tiny TUV is turning its tactics against it (subscriber only), the DUP is getting desperate to spread the responsibility for the unavoidable consequences of Brexit:
Under the leadership of Ian Paisley and his deputy and successor Peter Robinson, the DUP repeated the same tactic for decades.
Whenever it faced a serious problem it would cajole the UUP into some supposed pan-unionist initiative, portray itself as setting the agenda, then walk away whistling as the problem remained unsolved.
While the DUP was the smaller party this allowed it to cannibalise the UUP's authority. Once it became the larger party it still liked a UUP mudguard before attempting anything messy.
The tactic fell out of use under Arlene Foster, presumably because she was unable to pull it off. With Jeffrey Donaldson in charge and Robinson back as an adviser, pan-unionism is on the hob again.
A statement this Tuesday opposing the Northern Ireland protocol was a classic of the genre, signed by the leaders of four unionist parties - the DUP, UUP, hardline TUV and loyalist PUP. In an accompanying video UUP leader Doug Beattie looked like a hostage. He had little option but to sign as almost all unionists would prefer the protocol did not exist. Few nationalists are ecstatic about it either - their preference would be that Brexit had not happened.
The UUP has a careful position of regretting the protocol while accepting it and wanting agreed changes. The wording of the letter had been widened to encompass then swamp this stance. It read: "The protocol must be rejected and replaced." Beattie was left to mutter "we cannot support the protocol".
The widening of terms also allowed Donaldson to finesse his position. He said "the Irish Sea border must go" - very different from saying the protocol must go.
TUV leader Jim Allister simply called for the protocol's "removal", as did PUP leader Billy Hutchinson.
However, this win for the DUP comes after a week of pan-unionist manoeuvring, all of which went badly wrong.
In a Belfast Telegraph interview last Saturday, clearly meant as a mini-relaunch of his leadership, Donaldson called for a unionist pact at the next assembly election. This makes no sense in a PR-STV vote. Less choice would harm unionism overall, regardless of anything transfer management might deliver in theory.
The call was a trap to accuse Beattie and Allister of splitting the vote, but neither showed any hesitation in defying it. Beattie issued a flat-out rejection. Allister said "in a PR election you can't split the vote" and unionists should just transfer down the ballot. Then he moved the subject on to Sinn Féin becoming the largest party, challenging Beattie and Donaldson to say they will not nominate a Deputy First Minister in that scenario, causing devolution to collapse.
This was a trap to accuse rivals of being willing to play second fiddle to republicans - Alistair used the phrase "stooge unionists". The accusation makes no sense beyond the symbolic.
Refusing to nominate would only cause a collapse because the First and Deputy First Ministers hold "a joint office", as the TUV leader had to note. But Beattie and Donaldson both had to duck the question because every party must claim it is fighting an election to win.
This did no harm to Beattie as everyone knows he would nominate a Deputy First Minister. In fact that is the most the UUP can achieve as it is unlikely to run enough candidates to beat Sinn Féin.
The question was toxic for Donaldson, however, as there is doubt over the DUP's commitment to power-sharing. The DUP leader has raised this himself, saying two weeks ago Sinn Féin as the largest party "presents a real problem for unionism".
There is scant evidence unionist voters prioritise having the largest party above the survival of devolution. If they did they would not be spreading their support evenly across three unionist parties and Alliance.
So all this rhetoric about the Protocol is not so much about removing the Protocol per se, but about being seen to be the party leading the crusade against it, and gaining the upper hand in intra-unionist politics as a result.
The DUP is absolutely desperate to be seen as the prime defender of unionist honour, even as it is obvious to most observers that they are the party primarily responsible for its existence. Indeed it was the DUP which supplied the Westminster majority in an indicative vote against Theresa May's deal, which required no such Protocol as it kept the whole of the UK within the Customs Union and Single Market.
Who knows whether a majority of Unionist voters will end up swallowing the DUP Shtick. It has worked for them before- tilting at Windmills and blaming others for their lack of conviction when the inevitable defeat materialises. It is the stock-in-trade of demopaths everywhere.