A House of Cards: Northern Ireland Brexit Quagmire

A House of Cards: Northern Ireland Brexit Quagmire

“The bonds that hold the United Kingdom together are fraying. The government needs to try to mend them”, proclaimed The Economist in its editorial of 17 April 2021. In their opinion, the “union is now weaker than at any point in living memory”. Political leaders in Britain have risked the safety of the union, they claim, with First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster particularly at fault for “stupidly” opposing the ‘soft’ Brexit advocated by Theresa May, which precipitated Boris Johnson’s ‘hard border’ Brexit. To top it all off, they brazenly claim that Johnson’s most important task as Prime Minister is to hold the union together, and that if he fails, “he will go down in history not as the man who freed the United Kingdom [from the ‘tyranny’ of the EU], but as the man who destroyed it”.

For those more well-acquainted with the situation of political risk in Britain, The Economist’s patriotic diatribe very much needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

In a similar vein, Andrew Marr came under fire for ‘poor research’ in his segment of Marr’s Show on the NI Protocol, with Ulster University social scientist Professor Deirdre Heenan describing his interview as “absolutely shocking, biased and poorly informed re the NI Protocol“. In the interview, Marr claimed that a BBC opinion poll found 48% of those polled “hate the protocol and…want it to go”. The ensuing discussion included newly-elected Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Edwin Poots, who went as far as to claim that ”They [the EU] are doing demonstrable harm to every individual in Northern Ireland – and it’s having a devastating impact”.

But contrary to the claims made in the interview, during the Brexit negotiations all sides agreed that protecting the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was priority-one. The Northern Ireland Protocol was negotiated explicitly in mind of the peace agreement, with the main consideration being avoiding implementing a hard border. After Brexit, this required the maintenance of the single market within the island of Ireland, with the NI Protocol arranging the inspection of certain goods at the point of entry from Britain to the single market. In February, the DUP defended meeting with the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an organisation which represents loyalist paramilitary groups including the infamous Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – to discuss their opposition to the NI Protocol; as they claimed it was important for “all communities” to have a voice. They came under fire from Alliance and SDLP politicians including Naomi Long, who contended: “Proscribed terrorist organisations are not a legitimate part of our community. They aren’t stakeholders to be consulted. They are a malignant force destroying our community. Our job as Ministers is to eradicate paramilitarism, not give them a platform or legitimacy.

There is an increasing hysteria, with the flames being fanned by unionists, that the NI Protocol combined with the breaking of coronavirus restrictions by Sinn Féin politicians in attending the funeral of a former Provisional IRA commander Bobby Storey signal a forthcoming United Ireland. This was the spark which caused weeks of rioting and unrest in the province. As Matt Collins, Belfast city councillor for the People Before Profit Alliance, noted to the Guardian, the unionist community has been constantly told “the other side is winning”, seeing compromises in the Good Friday Agreements as ‘victories for the other side’. The sectarian violence only demonstrates that unionism is in crisis and the DUP’s days are numbered: “Having delivered nothing to their working-class communities they have resorted to sectarianism.” Indeed, the DUP’s calls for the police Commissioner to resign in the wake of the Bobby Storey funeral – attended by Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Féin officials in breach of coronavirus rules – have caused some to observe that, given the similar lockdown breaches by DUP officials, it had the effect of shifting unionist discontent with the DUP over the NI Protocol to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Additionally, electing a leader opposed to the NI Protocol and holding Christian fundamentalist views on issues such as women’s bodily autonomy and climate change can hardly mark a progressive step forward for the province, as some councillors declared after leaving the DUP over the result of the leadership election and Jeffrey Donaldson branding it a ‘purge’ of members. Arlene Foster was ousted as DUP leader in a coup by the hardline right wing, who felt she had thrown away significant political clout with Westminster and landed them with the NI Protocol, which in their minds is an ‘economic United Ireland’ and a stepping stone to reunification. Unionist politicians especially in the DUP have been notorious for using an ‘anti-sectarian’ clause in the Good Friday Agreement to block every Assembly vote for same-sex marriage and abortion. Indeed, central government has had to push through legislation on abortion and same-sex marriage, with the Northern Ireland Office minister Robin Walker warning Stormont in April of this year that if sufficient progress in providing abortion services was not made by the summer then they would face having them imposed by Westminster.

Furthermore, Poots has declared that he refuses to invest in infrastructure and staff for the NI Protocol and will be taking court action to repeal the Protocol. Moreover, two prominent unionist politicians from the DUP and UUP came under fire for attending a loyalist demonstration against the NI Protocol on Saturday 5th, where hundreds gathered in breach of coronavirus restrictions, some dressed in paramilitary fatigues and balaclavas en masse. Despite the fact that the province voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, Poots has claimed that “every unionist is opposed” to the Protocol, declaring “The Union is of critical importance to all our wellbeing. Those campaigning to end the Union would leave our citizens poorer and damage our key public services”. But the NI Protocol doesn’t represent a step towards Irish unity – despite the fact that the Good Friday Agreement enshrines the right to a poll should a majority democratically wish so, although without outlining a clear procedure for its implementation – indeed, Sinn Féin have been calling for a poll for several years, and recently Sinn Féin President Mary Lou MacDonald issued a call for a referendum by 2025.

Many in the unionist community defended the election of Edwin Poots as a hardline Presbyterian, claiming that his support for liberal MLA Paula Bradley to be elected Deputy Leader during the leadership campaign showed his willingness to compromise in the name of party unity – but this rang hollow when she was pressured into a public U-turn on her abortion stance, which has prompted observations that Poots is pushing the DUP in a hardline direction which will alienate their support base as well as damaging an already-shaky peace in NI. To be sure, his views on social matters as elementary as female equality and bodily autonomy are already causing rifts in the DUP’s electorate, with one ex-DUP politician Diane Forsyth stating that she had been the victim of “shameful sexism, ageism and the underlying tone of bullying”. Councillor Kathryn Owen stated in her resignation letter from the DUP that “I have concerns over the future direction of the DUP, with many talented women and moderate individuals within the DUP feeling voiceless. The only way to stop this coercion and control is to remove the fuel that feeds it and empower those voices. My constituents care about their health, education, the protocol and the pound in their pocket, the current direction of the DUP does not place these concerns front and centre for their vision.”

Poots’ leadership only lasted 21 days, as Sinn Féin put the condition of an Irish Language Act – an act which would put the Irish language on equal footing to English, once referred to by Arlene Foster as “feeding the crocodile”, on the basis that the Sinn Féin ‘crocodile’ will come back for more – on the agenda for any DUP selection for First Minister: once Poots had agreed, his hardline support base crumbled. With ‘moderate’ Jeffrey Donaldson now in charge of the DUP, he must either support the Irish Language Act and lose the DUP’s loyalist right-wing to Traditional Unionist Voice, or double down on their sectarianism and lose their more moderate voters’ base to the Alliance. In fact, the DUP have lost so much support and confidence recently that there may be an early election, one that opinion polls predict the DUP losing the leading position in Stormont to Sinn Féin. The truth of the matter is, the DUP and Conservative governments have been grossly incompetent, and consistently tried to avoid blame: the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has criticised the British government after a “confusing” article was published yesterday in the Irish Times, penned by Lord Frost and UK Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Coveney told RTÉ that in his opinion, this was another attempt by the British government to avoid taking responsibility for their own shortcomings: “Making statements like the EU are taking ‘a theological approach frozen in time that doesn’t deal with the reality that exists’, an exact quote from that article, is essentially blaming the EU for not being able to implement the protocol. The truth here is the only side that has shown flexibility…has been the EU. The challenge here is that both sides have to take responsibility and ownership”.

Coveney is not wrong, as it was the UK government who had asked for the three-month grace period on sausages and chilled meats. Indeed, many voters – as well as trade union officials, employers and essential workers in Northern Ireland and Britain – may be wondering if flying the EU’s nest was such a good idea in the first place, when the only party which has consistently defended the Good Friday Agreement in the Brexit talks has been the EU, backing the Republic of Ireland. In an interview with the Guardian, Georg Riekeles of the European Policy Centre thinktank said that “Small [EU] member states told us what is happening in Ireland shows us that when one country has an existential issue that that is an existential issue for all.”

Categories: Insights

About Author