Nerves on all sides are stretched like skins on a drum waiting to see what emerges from the forthcoming Protocol negotiations. Every cautious word is parsed and construed for signs of progress or the lack of it. Make no mistake a big push is on for a positive outcome on two fronts; to end the deadlock in the relations between the UK and EU and to come up with enough to restore the DUP to the Assembly.
Never mind the hedging against failure, everybody is pushing. Varadkar and Martin from Dublin, Sunak and even Starmer from London and not least, the ERG ministers of the NIO. Even though hopes are higher for an EU- UK settlement than a local one, it still looks a tough call, certainly in one big bang. Protocol problems could even be dwarfed by the retained EU Law Bill which would scrap 4000 pieces of EU legislation implemented over 50 years. This Bill as an Act would allow the EU to diverge from EU standards; thus on the way, potentially widening the border in the Irish Sea all over again. Even so a DUP deal looks the harder nut to crack.
During this period of hospital recovery I thought I’d take a fresh look at the DUP case which on the surface looks like a long term suicide strategy.
First I share some of the DUP’s fury. No.point now in casting up at them their own responsibility for the outcome. Nobody their right mind would prefer the Protocol to open trade in all directions as in pre 2016. In his heart not even Jim Allister can believe this can be restored. The answer is a nihilism which they seem to believe contains a veto power against a united Ireland. The more unionists are wooed for loser’s consent to unity, the stronger they will withhold it. Just as republicans held out with a terrorist campaign for decades and reaped rewards, so unionists can hold out indefinitely with political boycott. I might deplore this unconstitutional behaviour but I’ve got to admit that it might work as a medium term strategy. With unionist opinion hardening against a Protocol compromise they will hope for improving electoral fortunes in one, two or three elections over the coming fifteen months.
Meanwhile quasi learned constitutional arguments are deployed. “The Protocol was imposed on us and the people of Northern Ireland were never consulted about it”. Indeed they weren’t. They will be consulted next year about the terms of the Protocol or will be its it’s still in force . But that is a dud sanction for unionists as they would most likely lose the prescribed simple majority vote.
“But consent means cross community consent and to deny it is a violation of the GFA.” Almost certainly it doesn’t mean that legally.Unionists and the EU Commission are well matched in their love for arguing over texts and their interpretation. The Commission is a minimally accountable behemoth which depends on law. So let us admit that there is a whole series of democratic deficits over Brexit and the Protocol is currently the most contentious. Cross community consent is prescribed and the Protocol is not a constitutional change. It might not be a constitutional instrument but sure as hell it’s a major political change. Consent in one form or another is required for such a momentous change as the Protocol. But in what form? As a major political challenge one thing is for sure. It will not be decided in the courts.
Binary choices are the bane of our existence whether it be Brexit or at this stage a border poll. Scrapping the Protocol entirely is another one. But the compromise that will be eventually reached will requires the whole hearted consent that is currently absent. I suggest the only way to win it consent must involve more than adhoc representation on the joint committees but a full blown role for the Assembly, taking its fair share of the democratic accountability the DUP claim they want. And that requires the DUP to rejoin it. Soft pedalling on unity drives in favour of a functioning Assembly and major investment to take advantages of the UK and EU single markets may be required, with Dublin support. To settle the terms of Assembly restoration, another major international conference of stake holders may be required . Can we find another acceptable American or would s/he stick in the unionist craw?
On the ground I believe the best that can be hoped for is a slow phasing in of green and red channels and a British promise not to diverge from EU standards for at least five years. One can also envisage spot checks in the territory of the Republic for goods for onward export . The closer the data sharing the better, and the simpler the bureaucracy for trusted traders.
But in the end it’s traditional identity politics that counts. Wherever you stand on the spectrum, Northern Ireland is a political hybrid. Sinn Fein are recognising hybridity but with a different outcome in view. I find it astounding that the DUP and unionism generally are so little interested in articulating a reformed position with a changing UK (which I think will manage to hold together) and an already changed Ireland. The bare bones are there in plain sight. The GFA is more than an accommodation. It is the framework of a settlement for our time. I share much of the DUP visceral dislike of the Protocol. Where I differ from them fundamentally is their self destructive boycott of the institutions. They might have at least set conditions as leverage to promote their position. They should now take care. Open ended boycott may only create a healthy majority for a united Ireland. It will certainly hasten the day of a border poll.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London