Unionism cannot be boxed into one definition, however broad opinion, within the pro-Union and the middle ground Unionist constituency, beyond loyalism, the Orange Order, bonfire groups and attendees at pre-election rallies, is hardening towards the ‘Protocol’. It is now firmly rooted within constitutional and identity issues; not viewed as a destination but as a process shaped by EU rigidity that will take Unionism to a divergent and politically homeless place where it does not wish to reside.
Talk of protecting the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement within Dublin and decision-making elites in Brussels, as its carefully designed balance across the internationally referenced 3 Strands is thrown out of kilter by a disrupted internal market and reduction of unfettered East-West trade, is seen as disingenuous echo-chamber rhetoric; product of an exclusive, reckless and disrespectful belief system with no systemic accountability to the people most affected.
Even a large proportion of Unionism which voted to ‘remain’ in the 2016 referendum has little desire to be micro-managed by the EU with Dublin compliance and is coming to the view that both need to press harder on the political accelerator and revisit prevailing incapacity for promoting consensual solutions; to design a diversionary route before reconciliation and the Good Friday Agreement which it claims as a priority falls off an increasingly fragile precipice which, with accepted conventions being dismantled, is in need of being shored up.
It is no longer just an economic or trade issue and refusal to acknowledge this presents as no more than a means of cultivating resistance. It is a bad time for Taoiseach Michéal Martin TD and other Dublin-based politicians to have abandoned the merit of working to limit contentious debate.
It is to be expected from the performative and too often provocative comments of Simon Coveney TD or the tiresome ‘twitterings’ of Neal Richmond TD, whose minor status in Dublin seems to afford too much time for commenting on external issues into which he has no direct input.
The Taoiseach is usually more measured; inclined, unlike his singularly nationalist Dáil colleagues, to keeping lines of communication conducive to finding agreement and less forceful in wanting to mould his comments to manoeuvre debate into a display of power and outcome control for the EU.
To speak of strained relationships, as he continues to do, and accuse, as he did recently, those who do not agree with his analysis and advocacy for the implementation of the Ireland/ NI Protocol of ‘vandalising the NI economy’ is a statement worthy of re-consideration. Not unlike the decision by the EU to trigger Article 16 over vaccines.
For almost 40 years, political violence was directed at ‘vandalising the NI economy’ and in regard to where combatants were able to seek a safe haven, makes uncomfortable reading for the Republic of Ireland
Individuals lost their lives. Premises were destroyed. Jobs were forfeit to the tactics of the armalite and semtex. Millions of pounds which could have been spent on infrastructure was used for security and safe-guarding.
To demonise many, from across the community, who struggled to survive and keep the economy going throughout many difficult years because they express a view different from you is as disappointingly insensitive as it is surprising from a politician with claims to understanding ‘unionism.’
In a situation in which the Protocol is being viewed increasingly by those who favour maintenance of the Union as a constitutional issue, it has not gone down well.
There are those who may be prospering, for now, from a Protocol which is not yet fully implemented, as grace periods and Government aid remain in place, but there are businesses with genuine concerns. They are experiencing extra costs, delays and disruption to commerce and, in their opposition to current arrangements, have no desire to ‘vandalise’ anything in looking to the UK government, the EU and local politicians to get into consensual mode; to address those concerns, not least in regard to when ‘grace periods’ end.
Rather are they keen to build on the growing economic progress of a Northern Ireland for all with a Protocol that is ‘fit for purpose’, does not undermine the Good Friday Agreement and diminish those principles it is designed to protect.
Unionists recognise the responsibility of Unionist politicians and the UK Government for creating a situation from which the Protocol emerged as a flawed solution. However, with both prepared to consider better options likely to avoid unforeseen issues which are bound to arise from divergence, a democratic deficit, denial of economic drivers through subsidies and access to ‘levelling up initiatives’, it is the EU which is seen, increasingly, through its oft-repeated mantra of refusing to negotiate other than through the framework of the Protocol, as the greater problem.
It would seem that the EU is wedded to the ‘what we have we hold’ stance that bedevilled Northern Ireland for so long. Politicians, who motivated by different agendas, align with the EU, could display better judgement and endeavour to deliver resolution.
Brexit may have led to the Protocol but it seems to have been designed by scatter-gun thinking devoid of modelling as to how it was going to work other than to make Northern Ireland into an EU outpost and leave the economic and political existence of the remainder of the island intact; without any acknowledgement that if Northern Ireland was seen as a ‘special case’ geography dictates that this applies to both jurisdictions on the island..
The EU decision-makers by insisting on the present Protocol, to which the UK Government unwisely agreed, has left a continuously re-fuelled half-extinguished firestorm of economic arrangements and political aspirations which are being rendered incompatible within a process which undermines any possibility of its consensual application.
The tactics of insisting on know-best compliance and we allow you to have your medicines are running out of road. More informed understanding of the Good Friday Agreement and the nuances of politics in Northern Ireland would serve greater purpose; along with the involvement of local parties in detailed negotiations.
It should not be left solely to London and Brussels, with the Republic of Ireland as the EU wingman.
During recent interviews with an unusually benign Mark Carruthers on BBC, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar TD mounted a predictable defence of the Protocol and the EU. He referred to attempts to threaten, breaking treaties and strained UK-Irish relations. All was attributed to Westminster and its stance of failing to act in accordance with the majority in Northern Ireland. There was also reference to solutions which exist without any detail as to what they look like.
The irony of a Tánaiste who, while speaking of even-handedness, hopes to see the unification of the two jurisdictions under the governance of Dublin, has spoken of never again leaving Northern Nationalists behind and now from a historical position of doing what he now condemns, speaks for itself.
His convoluted explanation of British betrayal of the democratic will of the majority in Northern Ireland serves only to reinforce the incongruence of the Protocol with a Good Friday Agreement based on consensus and the principle of consent.
It points to a need for a new configuration of the former with no short-cuts, quick fixes or buck-passing; a level-playing field between the Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement in terms of respect, parity of esteem and departure from the ideologically frozen strategy of the EU.
To get it right for all the people, the Protocol has to work within the 3 Strands of the Agreement. To preserve the Agreement which remains a work in progress requires its being referenced in its entirety to address the impact of Brexit and not the cherry-picking approach currently being pursued by Brussels and Dublin.
Brussels talks of protecting the Agreement but consensus is being rendered elusive. The EU needs to stand back and develop a deeper understanding of the compromises and deep emotions which made its architecture realisable.
Failing to do this, risks displacing the muted middle-ground of political Unionism in ways not felt in Brussels, London or Dublin.
There was much heart-searching within Unionism prior to endorsing the Good Friday Agreement. The principle of consent and the 3 Strands weighed heavily when moving to create space for equality, reconciliation and consensual decision-making and have not been treated with sufficient rigour by the EU or the British Government under a now discredited Boris Johnson MP.
Too much leverage has been afforded threats of violence and too much attention paid to non-existing threats to the Single Market from East-West trade; too little to the fragility of Northern Ireland’s politics when, from a position of external self-interest you undermine the Good Friday Agreement and forfeit trust in decision-making in London, Dublin and Brussels.
Judgement of worth equally applied and co-creation of acceptance are absent.
The pre-conceived and rigid nature of the reductionist meta narrative of political beliefs which frame the Protocol do not meet the threshold for maintaining stability in Northern Ireland.
Anyone in doubt of this, need only consider why devolution is currently stranded and polarised.
A vetocracy now flows from the Protocol. Rightly or wrongly, unionism feels itself marginalised by the EU and by association, Dublin. It now views the Protocol as an investment in political and economic power, over which its influence will grow weaker.
Republicanism in particular is seen as having been handed a political tool to further its core purpose; with the Protocol, not a process, but a passageway.
It has taken us into undiscovered, messy and difficult political terrain.
There are those within Unionism who recognise the potential of a Protocol arrangement which addresses the flaws of the current version. Embedding it into a constitutional and identity gridlock to produce a determination to not roll over, undermines this project.
With a new Prime Minister soon to emerge for the United Kingdom there should be an opportunity to produce a new model for a shared island on the basis of non-threatening interdependence.
We are currently wide of the mark but a positive move would be for the EU to modify its current stance of projecting its own preferences to render any proposals as unworthy of consideration; deliver its claims to protecting the Good Friday Agreement by using it in its totality.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.