Talking someone who is Catholic and actually cares about the Union (which doesn’t make him a unionist per se but someone of whom unionists should take note), he described Brexit as “a betrayal of the GFA”.
Betrayal is an old familiar theme for us regarding matters Northern Ireland. Susan McKay’s new book majors on talking to what she has described in interviews as Lundys, Protestants inclined to stray away from the British cause.
It’s also what fuelled the early rage in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement, the sense that (some of) the promises made vicariously by George the Fifth at inauguration were never fulfilled.
This betrayal narrative is what made the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement seem like some kind of impossible dream beforehand, and is perhaps why it often seems that one party or another is busy in the act of betraying it.
I used to remark that one of the problems with such an epoch making agreement is that those who supported it treated it almost as a kind of Calvinistic document, having ‘signed’ (metaphorically) salvation was assured.
The worst aspect of the betrayal narrative is that it lowers expectations of what can happen and puts the blame firmly on the other. The problem is that this blame narrative blinds us to what ought to be obvious downsides.
Rory Montgomery (former Irish permanent representative to the EU) has recently noted that while it is convenient to blame Brexiteer on Unionists, it’s not a viable route to an agreement that also protects the Republic’s interests…
Brexit itself is of course the original sin. It was bound to have unpalatable consequences for Northern Ireland. The DUP’s folly in supporting Brexit, rejection of May’s efforts to find a softer, UK-wide solution and gullibility in trusting Johnson do not make an easy object of sympathy.
However, we should stand back and take a deep breath. Unionist unhappiness is real and in its own terms understandable. All unionists in the Assembly, including former Remainers, strongly oppose the protocol.
It is palpably disrupting commerce between Britain and Northern Ireland, as again made clear this week by the six supermarket chains which dominate food retailing in Northern Ireland. There are other high-profile impacts, from pets to pharmaceuticals.
Surveys indicate that while a clear majority of northern businesses pragmatically accept that the protocol is here to stay, they would strongly like to see changes in its application. Its real potential to encourage investment would not be damaged by such changes.
He goes on…
The search for solutions should be based on an acknowledgment of some fundamentals. The security of the single market, and of Ireland’s place within it, is non-negotiable.
Protecting the Belfast Agreement in all its aspects is not served by further division within Northern Ireland, or by tensions between unionists and the Irish Government and between Dublin and London.
It is not realistic to expect the EU to throw open the protocol for renegotiation. But – recognising that the EU has already shown flexibility – one might ask if its operation can be made less onerous. Must the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland be regulated in quite the same way as trade between a third country and the EU?
Critically, the political and constitutional contexts are very different. So is the pattern of trade, which largely involves shipping quite small mixed loads from British distribution centres, leading to a vast number of checks.
And given the size and geography of Northern Ireland, major leakage of goods into the single market is surely not an unmanageable threat. A more risk-based approach could reduce the burden of regulation. Some legal changes to current rules might be required, but that cannot be an insurmountable obstacle.
Finally, he concludes:
Ireland’s position is difficult and delicate. Membership of the single market is a pillar of our economy, while promoting stability in Northern Ireland is a key national interest. The collapse of the protocol would put possible checks and controls between North and South back on the table. So finding a modus vivendi is imperative.
We cannot be expected to sell the British case to the EU partners who have supported us so loyally. Nor, as it now stands, is it remotely saleable. But we know and care about Northern Ireland and can legitimately interpret the concerns and perceptions of all sides, supporting serious and creative engagement. Micheál Martin and Simon Coveney are wisely taking this measured approach.
It may well be naive to think that Johnson is in the market for achievable solutions. Maybe he calculates that the EU will not dare to apply sanctions, or alternatively that provoking it to do so will serve his political interests. Maybe he thinks the US will not in the end follow through on its warnings.
But he is the elected leader of the UK and the only prime minister available to deal with. For now the EU loses nothing by maintaining its strategic patience and giving him a further chance to confound his legion of doubters.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty