In my post last week I stated my view that “of course there’s not a great depth of understanding of the protocol among those most vocally opposing it (just as there’s no great depth of understanding of it among those most vocally endorsing it).” It was encouraging that there was no real effort in the comments section to refute that view. That’s why I was heartened by Dr John Kyle’s contribution to The View on Thursday last.
Discussion on the protocol has largely degenerated to the point where it’s simply a domestic football for most of those most vocally for or against it. For too many unionist politicians it’s yet another way to use a “union in peril” mantra to deflect from how they have led that very union away from a very recent time when it was at its strongest and safest in living memory.
For many republicans it’s a means to gloat and goad the broader pro-union population into feelings of insecurity by effectively agreeing with the DUP on the purpose and impact of the protocol. For marginalised loyalist groupings it provides a means to attempt to stay relevant.
For Stephen Farry it …… no I can’t figure that one out either. What they all have in common is a tendency to avoid discussing the actual protocol, rather than use the P word to further their old, tired agenda.
John Kyle’s actual words last week were:
“If we address those serious problems, if we see that there needs to be fundamental change in the Northern Ireland Protocol, then there are also significant opportunities there.
“Businesses in Northern Ireland will be able to export to the European Union without the regulatory restrictions that are placed on all other businesses in Great Britain.
“They will also have access to the UK internal market that other businesses in the EU do not have access to, so we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the UK internal market and the EU market.
“We are in a unique position that gives us an opportunity that no one else has, and we need to look at ways to exploit that.”
This is one of the few occasions we’ve seen a local politician – albeit a city councillor from a party that currently has no Assembly representation – adopt a genuinely non-binary position on the Protocol. From that perspective alone his intervention is to be welcomed as a starting point for debate.
I don’t intend to involve myself in such a debate here as I, as with most of the rest of us, don’t feel qualified to debate the intricacies of the trading impact of the Protocol. But as someone who remembers the depth of unionist community unease and antipathy towards the Anglo-Irish Agreement and Hume/Adams, I do not detect anything approaching that sentiment today outside of political unionism.
I certainly don’t feel any sense of the always evolving Union being significantly weakened by the Protocol. No one has demonstrated such a weakening in any credible manner.
What I do feel is that Brexit and the myopic view of it by unionism’s political leaders is facilitating the more voluble elements of republicanism in creating an illusion that Irish Unity is a realistic prospect in the medium term.
It’s unquestionably undermining what were much more mutually fruitful relationship between the Irish Government and its counterparts in Westminster and Stormont. That only suits people in Northern Ireland who want to destabilise NI.
So there is a pro union constituency out there waiting to be spoken for. And it’s a large one.
Hence the reason I believe that John Kyle has done us all a huge favour.
He has had the courage to step outside unionism’s political comfort zone and opine that there are potential advantages to our economy and community in a revised protocol. For the first time since Brexit changed everything, there is an opportunity for political unionism to get itself off the hook and finally start to put this gaping sore behind us once and for all,
The question is whether any element of political unionism will have the vision and courage to seize the opportunity he has provided to them. The real opportunity is for the UUP. That party NEEDS to grasp this lifeline ahead of May as a chance to put genuine and articulate distance between themselves and the DUP’s absolutist position.
Doug Beattie’s first reaction was encouraging:
“Not seeing the issue here. @cllrjohnkyle is saying the protocol needs fundamental change. This is not new. He has given an intelligent, thoughtful analysis including the collapse of Stormont would be bad for unionist. He is right….”
This was followed by an unexpected statement from former MEP Jim Nicholson, but it really focused on the need to retain Stormont and the mistake of hankering after Article 16 rather than specifically addressing how the protocol can be amended in everyone’s interests.
The UUP needs to do more than this. There is little to be gained by promoting Jim Nicholson as an elder statesman. Ditto Reg Empey. They were there for all the years of the party’s decline. The UUPs potential saving grace is its new leader with good new people around him.
The Assembly election will really kick into gear after Christmas. There is an appetite for the DUP. We all know that. There is also an appetite within the pro union community for a genuine alternative to the DUP. There is no appetite for DUP Lite.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.