by Frank Schnittger
Fri Dec 3rd, 2021 at 02:09:05 PM EST
Despite the best efforts of Lord Frost and the Tory party, there are growing signs that Northern Ireland is rejecting their polemics about the Protocol and coming to live with it as a fact of post-Brexit life. Although no one is happy with increased customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, there is a growing realization that Northern Ireland's unfettered access to the Single Market offers it a unique opportunity within the UK to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit.
Northern Ireland hasn't suffered the goods shortages seen in Britain, trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland is booming, and British statistics have now belatedly confirmed that the Northern Ireland economy is recovering faster than Scotland or Wales. But the most remarkable change is the U-Turn currently being performed by DUP Leader, Jeffrey Donaldson.
DUP making absurd U-turn towards NI protocol landing zone
Watching Jeffrey Donaldson turn the DUP back towards accepting the protocol is an absurd and impressive spectacle.
Difficult though it may to believe, given all that has happened since, it is only 10 months since the party's position was that the UK's overall Brexit deal, protocol included, offered a "gateway of opportunity" for Northern Ireland.
Two DUP leaders later, Donaldson's only plan has been to return to that stance. Like the rest of unionism, he is a bystander in negotiations between London and Brussels and will simply have to sell whatever mitigations emerge. He is also rapidly running out of time. Negotiations seem set to stretch into the new year and Stormont effectively dissolves at the end of March for a May election. Let there be no cliches about turning a tanker around. Donaldson needs to find the handbrake on a jetski.
Yet performing an absurd U-turn is an impressive skill, rare enough in politics, let alone in unionism. The more shameless the manoeuvring the better if it prepares the public for the final reversal.
There is growing awareness of the DUP's semantic distinction between the protocol and "the sea border". The louder Donaldson calls for the sea border to go, the clearer it is he accepts the protocol is here to stay. The distinction has been stepped up in recent weeks into a disciplined party line, reported knowingly in the press, while still not openly confronted. It stakes out the only plausible landing zone for the whole of Northern Ireland, as almost everyone agrees there should be as few checks as possible across the Irish Sea, based on assessing real risk to the EU single market. That was the EU's stated position as recently as 12 months ago. Cynical U-turns are not just for unionists.
As a unionist commentator, Newton Emerson feels obliged to have a standard swipe at the EU to provide his piece with some "balance". To the outside observer it is difficult to perceive a similar U-turn, cynical or not, on the EU side. The EU may have started off from a fairly legalistic insistence that the Protocol must be implemented in full as negotiated and agreed, but there was always an acceptance that the precise implementation was open to further discussion and mitigation. Indeed the Protocol itself provides for this.
What the EU could not do, and is now increasingly recognised as not doing, is to renegotiate the Treaty or dump the Protocol as unionists are still, at least officially, demanding. There will be no change to the oversight of the ECJ, and the Treaty Text and Protocol itself with not be changed post ratification. Attempts by the UK to re-open the negotiations by threatening to invoke A. 16 have been firmly rebuffed, not least by the Biden regime, which has refused to revoke Trump era tariffs on UK steel and aluminium exports in line with their elimination for the EU citing fears that the UK might invoke A. 16. So much for the post Brexit "special relationship" and trade deal with the US.
This growing pragmatism, especially on the DUP side, is also reflected in recent political polling. The Lucidtalk poll, cited in the image above, basically shows the DUP clawing back some support from the more hardline TUV and less hardline UUP, while on the Nationalist side there is possibly (a statistically non-significant) slight slide to the moderate, pragmatic, pro-business, but also pro-union Alliance Party.
However those slight trends are only what is visible since the last Lucidtalk poll in August. With the Assembly elections coming up in May, the more relevant comparison is with the last Assembly elections in 2017 where the relative changes since are as follows:
Sinn Fein (-4%)
SDLP (no change)
Greens (no change)
People before Profit (no change).
The real battle, next May, will be to see who achieves the First Minister role by being the largest party in the Assembly, and here Sinn Fein currently lead the DUP by 6% with Alliance only a further 3% behind. Although the difference between First Minister and Deputy First Minister is basically symbolic, it will be the first time that Unionists have lost the position and a huge psychological blow to their traditional domination of Northern Ireland politics. Expect the DUP to campaign on that basis for all its worth, as the TUV is effectively a one man show (Jim Allister) and is irrelevant to that battle.
It should also not be forgotten that the continuance of the protocol is subject to Assembly approval, in a majority vote, every four years. With Alliance openly supportive of (a mitigated) Protocol, and other Unionist parties increasingly pragmatic about it, it seems unlikely that the next Assembly will discontinue its operation. And with the N. Ireland economy likely to be increasingly dependent on access to the Single Market as time goes on, that prospect seems increasingly unlikely the longer the Protocol remains in place.
The DUP has marched its supporters up the hill demanding the Protocol's elimination only to have to march it down again, and in the process lost 10% of its projected vote. Sometimes "Ulster says NO" is not the final answer.