Northern Ireland needs a Protocol it can use and not be used by….

Politics is not devoid of emotion. It may or may not inform how outcomes are seen. The High Court may have concluded that the NI Protocol is not in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent. It feels otherwise.

Many who in 1998, largely on the basis of that principle, with Europe barely a consideration, allowed their heads to rule their hearts and supported the Agreement, now perceive it as undermined.

During the post-Brexit debates, there was constant reference to Northern Ireland as a ‘special case.’ As the can that is the NI Protocol in kicked down the road during’ grace periods’ there is no sense of being special for those metaphorically ‘inside the can. The reasoning goes well beyond the availability of ‘sausages.’

Constant media references to this particular issue belittles the nature of the discourse and trivialises genuine concerns and feelings of uncertainty which are not being addressed by the ideological rigidity of the EU, including Ireland.

You had to be there to understand the emotion, hurt and passion of the recurring and difficult weekend and evening debates within the Unionist party in the Waterfront Hall and elsewhere, with delegates running the gauntlet of protests.

Eventually, a narrow majority gave  a weakened leadership approval to ‘jump first’ without decommissioning and work towards agreement, peace and reconciliation.

The UUP of the time did what it believed to be in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a narrow belief system was altered to a values system and way of life centred on shared custodianship of reconciliation, peace-building, generosity, inclusion and diversity.

Releasing prisoners and combatants did not sit easy with many if not all but they were persuaded that the war was over and normal to ‘release prisoners’; that so long as a majority willed it, Northern Ireland would remain an integral part of the United Kingdom.

This principle of consent flowed through the veins of a fresh unionism prepared to adjust to the contours of the time; to discover a different way of being a unionist.

Consent for Northern Ireland regardless of political persuasion has remained the holy grail and non-negotiable. Unionism was told it was copper-fastened. It acts to keep the playing field even.

It was not as clear then that the aims of the armed struggle framed within a peace process would continue to be pursued relentlessly not least through delays in de-commissioning and the acceptance of policing, crises and the weaponised politics of cultural and political narratives.

Political unionism in response did not and has not equipped itself effectively. As a result of different leaders reacting to opposing agendas and creating a type of politics in the image of its perceived opposition, internal dissension, departures and the exploitation of difficulties by a DUP deeply embedded with a desire for supremacy and intent on power, Northern Ireland has had to endure a brand of inept and rutted unionism that has been anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-science and anti-immigrant.

It has survived on the back of too many politicians pretending to believe what they do not actually believe; saying words but missing the point.

That sectarianism to which Mike Nesbitt MLA referred as costing him the leadership of the UUP has been a plague within elements of political unionism oblivious to the role it has played in its own demise.

London, Dublin, Washington and now Brussels have not been helpful in pursuing the strategy of the quick and shallow fix; of clichés and platitudes It has taken a while to learn that a coat of fresh paint will not cure dry rot.

In spite of all of this, pro-Union communities, content to place their confidence in the principle of consent and tired of traditions and binary politics which no longer speak to them, have moved ahead of political unionism to progress Northern Ireland towards an inclusive and prosperous future in a global and pluralist world.

It is clear that unionist politicians for whom political successes have ultimately proven to be deceptive are responding. In the case of the DUP, not without domestic turbulence.

Erstwhile social reformers are emerging to support social change based on rights and equality having done little to put them in place. The Deputy leader of the DUP, Paula Bradley MLA judged it necessary to apologise for hurtful homophobia and strident prejudice.

These are small steps but at least in the right correction.

One has to hope that they are based on conviction and not electoral expediency influenced by polls and an emergent impetus for mature issued-focused political debate free from binary insecurities.

There seems to be a desire to get to the front to be seen to be leading where the community is already going.

For change to continue and move towards necessary transformation into a diverse but shared place for all, Northern Ireland needs stability and the economic progress to continue. Any issue which impedes this and shows potential to dominate the next Assembly election unhelpfully, to drive politics back into the ruts and trenches, needs to be solved.

The NI Protocol looms large and it’s not about the sausages.

The issues flowing from the protocol are well rehearsed: goods at risk, trusted traders, impact on cost of living, trade and businesses, divergence and controls, the level playing field, subsidy limitation, medication, pets, the damaging activation of Article 16, democratic deficit, lack of cross-community support and the denial of unfettered trade East to West.

Too many politicians go over old ground: who voted for what; who owns it; the potential benefits of the Protocol for some.

The motives are myriad: unifying Ireland into one political jurisdiction; keeping the United Kingdom economically linked to the Single Market, preventing a border on the island of Ireland, promoting an All-Ireland economy and theoretically, protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

Depends where you look and judging by the choregraphed efforts at the G7 to highlight the NI Protocol, you have to go far afield.

What is less evident is a willingness to replace ideology and intransigence with a sensible and bespoke accommodation to deliver agreement.

The benefits of a Northern Ireland having access to the single market, the United Kingdom and trade deals which it may agree are lost on no one. Everybody gets it. But, Northern Ireland needs a Protocol it can use and not be used by.

One that divides the community, shackles trade to and from its biggest market to force higher prices and shortages, manoeuvres Northern Ireland unwillingly in the direction of a Dublin -centric All-Ireland Economy as opposed to a Shared Island – both terms now seemingly interchangeable within the coalition government in Dublin – and does not treat all 3 strands of the Good Friday Agreement with equanimity does not tick the box.

With the UK no longer a member of the EU, relationships are no longer political but about trade. Any manufacturer wishing to sell into any market has to meet the standards required or the goods will not sell. Is it not the case then that most, it not all British firms, wishing to sell into Europe will have to comply with existing standards and are unlikely to depart from these for any internal market? Where is the risk if these goods also appear on the shelves in Northern Ireland?

Any infringement can be addressed through the Protocol.

To judge by the EU Commission Scoreboard for infringements, such are not unusual with 800 pending cases by the period just prior to January 2020. Spain had double the EU average with 57 cases whilst Belgium managed to reduce its score from 108 in 2010 to 23 by the end of 2019. In April, 2020 Germany was 5th highest on the table of infringement of EU regulations. Other data shows breaches in nature laws by Ireland, Germany, Spain, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and France.

This is the group of nations which, with others, is looking to impede chilled meats, pets and medicine from coming into Northern Ireland, ‘unfettered.’ It is not hard to understand why many of the 35% Unionist voters who voted to remain have now changed their preference as resentment at EU intransigence and suspect motives grows.

This is feeding into other discussions on Shared Island as Ireland, as a co-guarantor of the GFA adheres to the EU strategy and admonishes the UK, as if there is only one side in this debate that needs to move.

This is not a replay of 1998 but many who define as pro-Union, whilst uneasy about and wary of the attitude of the EU recognise that Northern Ireland can gain from the Protocol but only if it becomes as invisible as the Border has become. Goodwill and sensible solutions are needed.

Victory for one side will be a win for no one.

Unionism of all shades is uneasy at losing sight of its usual landmarks with the balance of the 3 strands within the Good Friday Agreement compromised. They need to be brought back into clear view.

Photo by Joenomias is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA