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Ghosts at the feast

Unionism has become an invisible cause in Westminster

Artillery Row

The Democratic Unionist Party may end up signing off on the Windsor Protocol, Rishi Sunak’s proposed remedy to many (but not all) of the problems raised by the Northern Ireland Protocol. If they do, they will likely loudly point out that it has vindicated their decision to collapse Stormont.

Would they be wrong? In much of the debate over how to handle Ulster in the wake of the Brexit vote, there has been a persistent determination in some quarters not just to shout down Northern Irish unionists, but to see right through them.

In the build-up to the unveiling of the new deal, the overwhelming flavour of some commentary revolved around whether the Prime Minister would have the political strength to face down his recalcitrant backbenchers.

This was a bafflingly one-eyed take on the situation. Yes, as a matter of the constitution any bilateral deal with the European Union is a matter for Parliament, where the DUP have only eight MPs.

It has been clear for months, however, that the timeline of the negotiations was geared towards getting the power-sharing Executive and Assembly back on their feet in time for the quarter-centenary of the Belfast Agreement in April. A deal that failed to address Unionist concerns would fail to meet that goal, even if it sailed through the Commons with Labour support.

The commitment becomes in effect that Dublin should set policy

Since 2016, the unionists can’t have helped but notice a stark double standard when it comes to how Northern Ireland is treated.

On the one hand, the specific and enumerated areas of cross-border cooperation set out in the Belfast Agreement were allowed by the hapless May Government to mutate into the widespread misconception that the United Kingdom was obligated by treaty to avoid any changes to the border with the Republic of Ireland.

On the other, the Agreement’s headline commitment — that the status of Northern Ireland within the UK would not change unless and until its inhabitants voted to do so in a referendum — was made a nonsense. “Constitutional status” was suddenly defined so narrowly as to exclude, at minimum, vast swathes of economic regulation and free trade with the mainland.

Nor has there ever been much, if any, indication that Ireland’s obligations under the Belfast Agreement place any constraints on its economic freedom of manoeuvre. Absent that, the commitment to alignment becomes in effect that Dublin should set policy for Northern Ireland in any event where divergence might change the border.

The result has been a predictable backlash. Recent polling suggests about four in five Unionist voters supported the DUP’s refusal to return to power-sharing absent a resolution on the Protocol. Worse, another suggested a majority would not vote for the Belfast Agreement (or at least the currently-fashionable interpretation of it) today.

The response to their revolt has been quite different to the attitudes usually displayed towards nationalist disaffection. Whilst the former was cited as evidence that Brexit imperilled the Belfast Agreement, the latter somehow didn’t count in the same way as evidence that the Protocol did likewise.

When Sinn Féin collapsed Stormont on several occasions over the last few years, each time a Secretary of State brokered a package of goodies to get them back in. Once the DUP did it, there was a lot of tough talk about the need to overhaul the devolution arrangements to prevent this sort of thing happening again.

Happily, nobody today is suggesting hanging anyone

Such attitudes aren’t new. Ulster unionism is an untidy thing, spoiling neat geographic divisions and simplistic historical narratives alike. There is the temptation to bulldoze past it. Writing a century ago, in Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him, Joseph Tumulty revealed (albeit perhaps without noticing) the gulf in the attitude the then-president took towards the two strains of what were then Irish opinion. After a long paean to the unconquerable spirit of Irish nationalism, Wilson had only this to say about Sir Edward Carson, whose Ulster Volunteer Force was arming and mobilising against the prospect of being forcibly integrated into an all-island state outwith the United Kingdom:

“I would like to be in Mr. Asquith’s place. I would show this rebel whether he would recognize the authority of the Government or flaunt it. He ought to be hanged for treason.”

We happily live in more enlightened times, and nobody today is suggesting hanging anyone. The Wilsonian spirit endures nonetheless, perhaps best encapsulated by this quote from an anonymous EU source, who in 2017 said of Theresa May

“ … is she going now to do a brave and risky thing, and say to the DUP, listen you guys you’ve got nowhere else to go anyway, so this is what’s going to happen?”

Overall, it seems difficult to argue with the conclusion that it is only determined political — and blessedly not paramilitary (despite the Loyalist Communities Council withdrawing support for the Belfast Agreement in 2021) — resistance by Unionists which has got things as far as they have.

Calls for the “full-fat” implementation of the original Protocol have died away, but were once common. Westminster eventually unilaterally extended the so-called grace periods, but they were originally negotiated as temporary. Had the Unionists not made themselves impossible to ignore, it seems very likely they would have been.

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