by Frank Schnittger
Thu Nov 11th, 2021 at 05:14:24 PM EST
Over the years I have made a point of reading Northern Ireland unionist political commentators in order to get a sense of what they are about. The Slugger O'Toole website is a good indicator of non-aligned or moderate unionist thinking - mostly sympathetic to the Alliance party - and Newton Emerson and Alex Kane are unionists linked to the Ulster Unionist party which ran Northern Ireland prior to the ascendency of the Paisleyite DUP. I have not yet found a politically literate commentator linked to the DUP.
Unionism in Northern Ireland is an evolving political force slowly coming to terms with the fact that they can no longer command a majority of the electorate even if that majority is still broadly in favour of the status quo union with Britain. There are many strands to unionism, from the fundamentalist protestant Free Presbyterians of the the DUP to the agnostic liberals of the Alliance Party who just want Northern Ireland to like any other part of the UK.
But they all seem to think that the world revolves around unionists and what they want and feel they need, and find it hard to comprehend that the world around N. Ireland has changed and might have other priorities. Thus the debate around the Protocol within unionism has been all about retaining as much as possible of the free trade they had with Britain while also retaining full access to the Single market. Some even think that the Boris Johnson regime shares their concerns.
Newton Emerson has a column up in the Irish Times in which he notes that a fragile majority of unionists are in favour of the Protocol and most don't see it as a major political priority for them. There is even an acknowledgment that nationalists have had to live in a state which doesn't entirely sit comfortably with their cultural identity and that it is prudent for unionists to make some compromises to ensure the continued stability and existence of Northern Ireland as a separate entity within the UK.
Thus while the advantages of continued access to the Single Market are taken for granted, any diminution of customs control free access to the British market is seen as a pragmatic price that has to be paid for Brexit- something a large majority in Northern Ireland never supported in the first place. There was thus a broad welcome for the EU proposals to minimise the amount of paperwork involved and a willingness to make it work as efficiently as possible.
Not so with Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP and Jim Allister of the small Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) parties. For them ANY trade barriers between Britain and N. Ireland is a diminution of the Union, of the Sovereignty of the UK as a whole, and a betrayal of their "British" identity. They are quite happy to take any advantages that being part of the Single Market may confer, but not at the price of what they perceive to be "a border down the Irish Sea" and which they fear might be the first step in a slippery path towards a united Ireland.
Of course it would be wonderful if Northern Ireland could have the best of both worlds without regard to the fact that the form of Brexit chosen by the Johnson regime meant that the rest of the UK left both the Single Market and Customs Union. Somehow it is now the EU's fault that this has resulted in some complications at the border, no matter where the border is chosen to be. Northern Ireland had full access to both markets as part of the EU, and it is Brexiteers who chose to abrogate that.
This blindness to the original sin of Brexit itself is a characteristic of almost all unionist (and much British) thinking. They feel entitled to what they had as part of the EU even if they left to pursue some sovereign adventures elsewhere. It was churlish of the EU not to let them have their cake and eat it, and now somehow the EU is seen as the aggressor.
Newton Emerson concludes his column by arguing that the majority unionist support for the Protocol in N. Ireland is fragile and could easily dissipate if a trade war were to break out between the UK and the EU. Unionists would then feel bound to rally to Britain's side. His column can therefore be seen as a plea to the EU to go yet another extra mile to placate British concerns. Apparently, if the EU truly cares about peace and stability in Northern Ireland, it will put its interests ahead of its own in protecting the Single Market.
The fallacy in this line of argument is to believe that the DUP or Boris Johnson regime will be happy with ANY border controls down the Irish sea, and that any easements offered there won't be demanded for trade across the English Channel as well in due course. This battle between the UK and the EU isn't really about Northern Ireland at all, save as a place to create precedents for the larger battles between the UK and EU to come. The Johnson regime still wants to have its cake and eat it, and if that means some collateral damage in N. Ireland, then so be it.
Indeed Frost and co. have done everything they can to stir up trouble in N. Ireland in support of their argument that the Protocol is undermining the fragile peace there. Frost must be very disappointed at the paltry response of the protestant paramilitaries to date. A few burnt out buses hardly make the headlines any more, even in Ireland. No doubt he will get MI5 on the job to create some proper mayhem, as when they set off bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974 killing 33 civilians.
But if relations break down and a trade war breaks out between the UK and the EU, few will remember that the original problems arose in N. Ireland. It will be driven by the dynamics of the Brexiteers trying to cling onto power in Britain, and the EU trying to preserve its own raison d'être. What unionists and Brexiteers never seem to factor into their equations is that the EU also has its internal stability to consider, and plenty of other crises to manage. With Merkel gone, Macron up for election, and the rest of the EU exasperated that the UK is still taking up so much attention, a very robust response from the EU is on the cards.
This isn't so much about the stability of N. Ireland as the stability of Europe, and what unionists think or don't think will have little bearing on the outcome. Strangely, it turns out that N. Ireland isn't at the centre of the universe, even though it could be the flashpoint which signals very serious conflict in Europe, much as the assassination of a relatively obscure Archduke in Sarajevo led to a war with then unbelievable consequences.
Lord Frost cautioned European governments to "calm down" when they threatened retaliation for any failure of the UK to honour the Withdrawal Agreement, up to and including the repudiation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the implementation of trade tariffs. But it is he and his government who have been keen to keep the Brexit pot on the boil, for fear of losing support and credibility at home. They really have no idea of what they are playing with, and repudiating the jurisdiction of the ECJ in Northern Ireland will be the least of their concerns if all this goes south.