From his analysis of the Protocol bill, I want to pull out Rafael Behr’s comments on how little Northern Ireland registers in the wider media as itself, on merit . You can almost hear the groans from TV viewers,” Not Northern Ireland again” in a situation even more incomprehensible to them than the Troubles
It isn’t every day that former prime ministers set old party enmities aside to deliver a unified message on a matter of national urgency. When John Major and Tony Blair did it in June 2016, warning that Brexit would jeopardise the delicate balance of peace in Northern Ireland, it rightly led the news.
But not for long: the two prime ministers did not grace a single English newspaper front page the following morning. The media caravan moved on briskly. Besides, Northern Ireland was exactly the kind of serious, complicated and historically knotty subject that referendum coverage swerved to avoid. In fact, in a survey by King’s College London, analysing 350,000 articles in print and online across the 10-week referendum campaign, Northern Ireland didn’t register as an issue at all…
Today it is the ” protocol” part of it rather than “Northern Ireland” that survives in the headlines against massive competition from the Rwandan immigration scheme, endless material on the cost of living , rail strikes, Ukraine etc.. For “Protocol” read “Boris.”
It is revealing also that the bill targets every aspect of the protocol, not just the customs procedures that cause symbolic and constitutional distress to unionists by erecting barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland. If ministers were sincere in their claim to be focused on the border issue, they would not be roving off into the legislative weeds, pulling up anything that looks like European court jurisdiction or regulatory alignment.
Pursuit of those targets is a sign that a policy nominally made for Northern Ireland has been customised to indulge the obsessions of English Tory Eurosceptics.
So much we know. The Orange card, a strong card in its own right has been played for over a century. British coercion and “killing home rule by kindness” alternated during the whole period of the Union of 1800. We can debate the strength of British awareness of the “ real” Northern Ireland today. The theme of British indifference and exploitation beloved of nationalists is overdone but not ridiculous. I say this in full awareness of the extent of Boris Johnson’s cynicism. Even cynicism needs a reality to exploit.
There is nothing innately wrong in including NI affairs in UK wide policy provided that the motives are good and the fit works.
Pressurising the DUP to return to the Assembly supports the government’s argument to the world that it is protecting the GFA, or one leg of it at any rate.
Never since 1910 has Northern Ireland been so entangled in a British government’s struggle with domestic opponents and foreigners, when the Union itself has been at stake. It is not only an uncomfortable place to be but a dangerous one.
I’d extend Behr’s point. British opinion generally has found it very difficult to see Northern Ireland as it sees itself whether you are unionist or nationalist. It is British and not British, British or Irish in aggregate or binary, very small and quite a big problem but not too big as to demand a drastic solution. The status quo under the GFA is the rational default.
British acceptance of their responsibilities during the Troubles was the essential factor in ending them. Today that responsibility survives. Although the strength of support for it is unclear, to me it’s surprisingly durable. Yet inevitably it comes with costs and unintended consequences.
The Protocol entanglement provides a clear warning to local opinion and parties to stand more on their own two feet. Their scope for individual initiative is so limited as to be negative, as the DUP are proving today and as Sinn Fein demonstrated in 2017. It is not because British betrayal is the norm , only that if the British cause is defeated as is surely likely in the Brexit struggle, Northern Ireland could end up as collateral damage and carry the blame for the whole wretched mess. The lesson for the DUP and unionism generally is obvious. They risk serious reputational damage with pretty much the entire world outside, not only to themselves, but to Northern Ireland as a whole.
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