The Union will not survive the end of the NI Protocol

I’m sure everyone must be feeling as exhausted and frustrated as I am to see that once again we’re back to groundhog day once again with the European Union and the UK launching into another period of tense negotiations.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time going over what is currently going on when there is plenty of fine – and infinitely more qualified – commentary available elsewhere, except to say that it sounds like the UK is making a determined effort to rid itself of the NI Protocol and provoke a trade war, strangling the EU’s reform proposals before they’ve even been announced and moving towards a permanent, unilateral repudiation of the Protocol’s provisions. By doing so, it will force not only the EU’s retaliation, but also create significant problems for Ireland, as any breakdown of the Protocol and ensuing conflict will see the EU lose control of goods coming into the single market. This may necessitate the introduction of border controls either within Ireland or between Ireland and Europe. 

The UK government is doing this not because it has a practical dispute over trade flow, but because it wishes to divert attention away from its own incompetence back home. While there are shortages of HGV drivers and energy supply across the world, the UK government’s failure to plan for the challenges it would face following brexit – for example, by failing to make sufficient temporary visa provision, failure to improve pay and conditions for HGV drivers, or failing to stop the gas grid operators from closing natural gas storage facilities – has made its position far worse than it otherwise might be. A fight with the EU provides a welcome distraction.

However, what I really want to talk about is what this all means for us and our fragile settlement in this small corner of the world.

Unionists argue that the Protocol has already damaged the settlement by undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. On face value and in isolation, I can accept this. The problem is that neither Unionism nor the UK government seem serious about supporting proposals which could solve that problem while addressing the issue of protecting the EU single market and ensuring that there is no hard border in Ireland. During the confidence and supply period, the DUP’s publicly declared priority was not with Northern Ireland’s interests, but with securing a hardline interpretation of brexit against the wishes of the Northern Ireland electorate.

(I fully expect, ten years from now, we will begin to hear from retired DUP MPs expressing regret at failing to take action to secure a softer brexit compromise that could have avoided the scenario that will follow.)

In reality the Protocol is not and cannot be all things to all people. Its role is to protect the settlement here from the damage that would otherwise be inflicted by brexit, at the cost of free trade follow from GB to NI.

I think it is important to understand what the EU, USA and other actors mean when they say that they are concerned with protecting the peace process :  we should define what the peace process is. It is not merely an absence of violence; it is about stabilising the Northern Ireland state, parking the constitutional question to avoid it being a distraction, and governing it under cross-community consensus within the UK. Since Unionism by definition poses no democratic threat to the status of NI as part of the UK, it follows that there is a need to find ways to disincentivise the Irish unity case, which the NI Protocol achieves by ensuring there is no border within the island of Ireland and providing free access to both the UK and EU export markets.

To remove the protocol is therefore to remove a disincentive for Irish unity; a pyrrhic victory for unionism which would kickstart a future unity campaign. If the EU had to put controls between Ireland and the rest of the EU, it would not only damage Northern Ireland exports to Europe, but provoke an angry reaction from Northern Ireland’s non-unionist centre ground, who are broadly pro-Europe and increasingly pro-Ireland. Irish reunification would move from being a solution in search of a problem, to a solution that solves many problems, enabling full access to the single market to be reinstated for the whole island and finally an escape from the Johnson Tory party’s political nihilism.

To those campaigning for the end of the Protocol – I really hope you know what you’re doing. Absent a dramatic change in the UK’s position on its border with Europe, the end of the Protocol means, at least for me, the end of the road in terms of trying to govern the Northern Ireland state by consensus within the UK. It is simply impossible to make the case for it while the government acts, for self-serving reasons, to undermine that consensus. It is intolerable to sustain the existence of a border if its presence directly leads to the establishment of trade borders either within Ireland, or between Ireland and Europe, against the will of either party.