How the NI Protocol protects the Agreement

To the chagrin of Unionist politicians, it’s often emphasised by the four governments (UK, Ireland, EU, and US) that the Northern Ireland Protocol exists to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.

For reasons which are understandable when examined in isolation, Unionism feels let down by the promise of the Agreement. I can see where they are coming from. The Agreement is based on cross community consent; the Protocol does not recognise this. British citizens are asked to accept what amounts to secondary status within the UK. Constitutionally, Northern Ireland is to some extent a place apart. We can argue over whether or not these are reasonable perspectives, but many Unionist voters are angry, and in some ways, they have a right to be.

However, the role played by the Protocol in protecting the Agreement must be understood in the wider context, rather than in terms of totemic issues of concern highlighted by political Unionism. To understand the position of the four governments, it’s necessary to understand what exactly they mean by protecting the peace and the Agreement. 

UK government policy since the early 1970s has been to stabilise Northern Ireland by preserving it, reforming it, making it work, forestalling major constitutional change, and securing Irish, American and (later) European support for this strategy. After some false starts, it successfully did this, and codified it in a series of documents culminating in the Good Friday Agreement. It is a strategy that could, and should, be described as pro-union, eschewing ideological nationalist theory that the state cannot be stabilised. Nationalists were persuaded to drop their ideological opposition to the state within the wider context of EU membership and the end of any kind of day-to-day manifestation of a border.

In their entirely unforced political decision to interpret the result of the 2016 referendum as a vote for a hard brexit, the UK government and the DUP brought constitutional questions back to the surface. While they now invoke the need for consensus, they spent years completely ignoring it, arguing for a border presence on the island of Ireland, ignoring the warnings of others – notably Mike Nesbitt – about the impact this could have on non-Unionists. In doing so they gambled the union, helping to undermine confidence in the determination of the UK government to underpin the peace, and provoking discussions outside of Unionism which have widened the scope of support for Irish reunification.

If you start from the position that the easiest way to preserve the Agreement and the peace in Northern Ireland is to retain the union and the Northern Ireland state, even in the short or medium term, it follows that the political solution adopted must be one which discourages soft nationalist and centre-ground opinion from pivoting towards a campaign for reunification and a border poll. With the the existing solution critically undermined by the UK’s European policy, it is clearly necessary to adopt a strategy that can repair the damage.

The NI Protocol accomplishes this in two ways. Firstly, it creates export economic opportunities for Northern Ireland, enabling it to act as a gateway between the EU and the UK, with the tradeoff of disincentivizing GB to NI imports. While we cannot downplay the sensitivity of this tradeoff to Unionism, it nonetheless stands that if this arrangement is allowed to work, it would make Northern Ireland a unique place to run a manufacturing and exporting business. In creating economic opportunities which do not exist elsewhere in Ireland, and prosperity flowing from that, the Protocol establishes a significant incentive to retain the union among those who are not ideological unionists. This should be of particular importance given that ideological unionists fall well short of the numbers to maintain the union by themselves.

Secondly, and most obviously, the Protocol avoids visible land border arrangements in Ireland. It may be politically expedient to argue, as some Unionists have, that the need to avoid such arrangements amounts to an appeasement of republican threats. But the less convenient reality is that even if the security situation could somehow be managed, the presence of a border – physical or otherwise – would serve as a lightning rod for nationalist activism, acting as a central point around which nationalism could build a renewed reunification campaign.

Unionism is in a very unfortunate position where it has no leverage. Non-unionists who feel strongly about a land border have an alternative – a nuclear option, if you will – to secure the end of a border in Ireland in the event that the Protocol is removed. Unionism has no such nuclear option. It can threaten to withdraw from powersharing, but it knows that this will only lead to joint authority. It can threaten violence, but what is the endgame ? Loyalist violence can no more deliver an Irish land border than IRA violence was able to deliver the end of British jurisdiction on the island of Ireland.

These are the reasons why the four governments support the NI Protocol as the way to protect the peace and the Agreement – very simply because every possible alternative that is allowed for by present UK and EU policy on customs increases the pressure to bring about uncontrolled constitutional change with everything that entails. This kind of uncontrolled change serves no-one’s interest, least of all that of Unionism.

Tactically, Unionism is caught in a contradiction. On one hand, selling struggle and perpetual siege to the existing support base may be electorally successful (although this theory is increasingly under threat). On the other, adopting policies which speak to the priorities of a minority within a minority of the electorate run the clear and present danger of handing Irish unity activists all the material they need to build a reinvigorated unity campaign. The longevity of the union now rests, among other things, on Unionism’s ability to promote its interests in a way that do not antagonise the non-Unionist voting majority. The tactics adopted by Unionism so far have failed to do this.

Rather than trying to sell its voters fantasies about its ability to end the NI Protocol, Unionism must now come to terms with an unpalatable reality. The NI Protocol may diminish the union, but as of this moment it is the only major obstacle standing in the way of a broad-based Irish unity campaign. If it were somehow successful in securing the end of the Protocol, it would be kicking away the last of the props holding up consent for the existence of the Northern Ireland state in its present form. 

The best chance to retain the union and avoid a united Ireland, if that is the objective, is to uphold and operate the protocol as well as a renewed commitment to true partnership in government that can deliver social and economic reform in Northern Ireland. In the absence of pragmatism from the British government, this will necessarily lead to further alignment of the two economies on the island of Ireland – but there is no other choice as long as the UK government continues to hold out against a customs union with the EU.

Looking through a longer lens, Unionism’s failures owe a great deal to events in 1974/1975 when it successfully collapsed the Sunningdale powersharing Executive. This success appears to have imbued it with an unrealistic degree of confidence in its ability to rally support to overturn outcomes it does not approve of. It does not yet appear to have learned from the defeats it suffered when it subsequently tried to do this over the Anglo Irish Agreement and at Drumcree. Any sustained boycotts or street-level tactics will fail just as the others did, and the only consequence will be a  deepening demoralisation of the Unionist voter base. Again, this is an outcome that serves no-one’s interest except those who thrive on instability.

Those who wish to retain the union must now think carefully about whose advice they decide to follow, particularly given that much of that advice is now coming from those who have a poor record in predicting the deleterious effect that misguided campaigns – for example, flags, and brexit itself – have had on their longer term interests. While it is and always shall be incumbent upon all of us to work towards solutions and reforms that maximise support for everyone’s identity and tradition, Unionism must learn to recognise the success that will come from being able to identify the least worst option and play the hand that it has been dealt.