Peter Robinson under arrest at Clontibret 1986
Arlene Foster has all but declared the DUP’s lack of confidence in the UK government’s efforts to renegotiate the protocol. From the sidelines her predecessor Peter Robinson is tempting her to contemplate doing something more dramatic about it than protest. With his acute ear he has picked up the drumbeats not only from the DUP core but from the loyalist undergrowth. Cannily attempting to insure against taking the blame for another “flegs” debacle, he insists in anticipation that DUP cannot control them.
Arlene Foster is still as the preliminary stage of demanding scrapping of the protocol. Hopelessly unrealistic you may think; the latest catastrophic misjudgement after rejecting Theresa May’s backstop solution .
But it’s worth looking at DUP tactics quite differently. Concede the disaster of their Brexit tactics. They may now be gambling that the outworking of the Protocol will remain so unpopular that they stand a chance of winning a simple majority in the next Assembly elections or at least in an Assembly vote on the future of the protocol the following year. Until recently intransigence never did the DUP any electoral harm. Perhaps we are in a new era of the centre ground holding the balance of power. But even here it is not to be taken for granted that all of it will move towards accommodation with the EU.
But judging from his article in the Newsletter, Peter Robinson is again losing faith in a conventional electoral and parliamentary approach. He has begun to flirt again with direct action. He even implies that withdrawing from the Assembly might head off loyalist unrest. These are old Robinsonian tactics for holding Sinn Fein to account for IRA breaches of “exclusively peaceful means”. Perhaps he means a revival hokey- cokey ministerial withdrawals or some such? But after the three year stand- off does he really believe the Assembly would survive that sort of action? Roll on a border poll instead.
If there is the stomach for defiance then, in truth, you cannot try to ditch the protocol and administer it at the same time. How comfortable are unionists with that and the consequences that may flow from it?
Is the scrapping of the protocol more important than the continued operation of the Assembly? A choice may have to be made. How would the collapse of the Executive impact on the fight against Covid and its plethora of variants and mutations? Alternatively, can those opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol gain a majority in the Assembly and withhold the democratic consent required under Article 18?
Lurking in the background is the potential for violence stirred up by opposition to the Protocol. Such an outbreak linked to a campaign to ditch the Protocol would be hugely damaging. Yet history shows, and it is my experience, that unionist leaders have had little success in controlling those who may opt for such activity.
What is needed is a pan-unionist response that all unionist parties can support. The inclination to out-do or criticise others who have the same objective must be overcome.
The very fact that Robinson professes to offer a choice between continuing to make the Assembly work and a boycott inevitably highlights the latter as a real option. He has drawn back just in time to accommodate Foster’s present and perhaps provisional stance. But Robinson won’t have forgotten what happened to him on the streets of Clontibret. What makes him think he would be any more successful in junking the protocol than he was in thwarting the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985?
Photograph BBC, (Pacemaker)
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London