Since 1998 Northern Ireland’s peace and reconstruction has been based on a precarious balance set out in the Belfast Agreement. Irish Nationalists inside the UK gained devolved executive office, through the technically extra-democratic means of compulsory power sharing, and, for whatever it mattered, an “acknowledgement” of their exclusively Irish identity. While Ulster’s British Unionists were reassured by the principle of consent – Northern Ireland would remain in the UK as long as its people wanted to. The agreement led to the new assembly with its complicated system of appointments and bi-communal consent.
The Northern Ireland Protocol designed by Olly Robbins and Gavin Barwell for Theresa May’s Government upended this careful balance. Imposed without consent, and contrary to the Act of Union and the Belfast Agreement, it has left Unionists questioning whether the process is really deserving of their continued support. Does it still do what it promised it would?
It’s worth remembering what exactly that process was for the unionist parties: one where decades of sectarian slaughter, mostly waged by one the parties law-abiding democrats are now obliged to see put in the NI executive, regardless of its electoral performance, was concluded with Sinn Fein in effect rewarded for no longer murdering that many people. Those people having included unionist politicians as well as their supporters. Unionists put up with a lot to get the principle of consent agreed to.
If “upholding” the Belfast Agreement means nationalists and the Northern Ireland Office imposing an Irish Sea Border inside the UK, cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the Union, and a legislative programme in Westminster (which includes an Irish language Act but no legislation on veterans’ rights) designed to appease Sinn Fein, then many would question the value of the agreement to Unionism.
In May there are elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The largest party after these elections appoints the First Minister. Currently, the First Minister is the from the Unionist DUP; after the elections, the IRA’s sometime political wing, Sinn Fein, could appoint a First . I say sometime because of course the IRA has, as we all know, gone away, in compliance with the sacred Agreement saying it should.
It’s highly likely that a “rigorously implemented” NIP, to use the term, and course of action, its most militant supporters preferred, will see Unionist Parties doing what Sinn Fein did for three years and collapsing the assembly, leaving Northern Ireland under un-devolved direct rule from Westminster.
But why would Sinn Fein become the largest party in May? The answer comes back to the Protocol. Unionism has been fractured and demoralised by the imposition of the Protocol. Elections in Northern Ireland are won on the relative turn out between the two traditions and within those traditions between the parties.
With the Protocol in place the DUP’s voters are demoralised and (with some reason) see little point in voting for institutions that continue to fail them. Some have not registered to vote, others will vote for more extreme Unionist parties that were not in power when Barwell imposed the Protocol (and so cannot be blamed for failing to stop it). The TUV being the main one. Conversely Sinn Fein can point its voters to a series of wins simply handed to them by Whitehall – it has persuaded the Northern Ireland Office to drop veterans’ legislation, to legislate for a totemic Irish language Act and all this without even taking their seats in Westminster. This situation serves nobody, with the Protocol hanging over them Unionists have no political space to conduct the everyday compromises required to make the settlement work. It has led to political paralysis.
So what should be done? First, this is a Conservative & Unionist Government and it should act like one. The appeasement of Sinn Fein is unnecessary and deeply damaging. The blame for the Northern Ireland Protocol lies on those who accepted it in 2017/18 but the responsibility for dealing with it rests on those in power now. Ideally, we would never have accepted the principle of the Irish Sea Border, but that was done and Parliament in 2019 would not release the current Prime Minister from its clutches. The analogy of the Irish Free State – accept the deal, deal with it later – is an unfortunate one, but either way later is now.
The Foreign Secretary met Maroš Šefčovič this week at Chevening. He offered nothing. Hopefully he was told that nothing less than the removal of the Irish Sea Border and the ECJ and EU laws from Northern Ireland are vital if the Belfast Agreement is to endure. The UK can address the EU’s concerns about goods entering its market but maintaining the UK’s constitutional order and the viability of the Agreement is the UK’s business and its priority. Claim’s about the needs of the EU’s Single Market trumping the needs of the peace process are strange ones and should be ignored.
To do this the UK should prepare an Act of Parliament to reincorporate Northern Ireland back into the UK’s internal market Barwell’s protocol removed her from, and restore the Act of Union. This would restore Unionist’s faith in the balance of the Belfast Agreement and potentially lead to a Unionist First Minister. The Irish Republic (or at least the majority that does not back Sinn Fein/IRA) would benefit from speedy action on the Protocol. The remaining moderate politicians in the Republic have nothing to gain from a Sinn Fein victory in Northern Ireland. Even amongst the more nationalist minded representatives of Fine Gael the euphoria of their “victory” over the UK in securing the Protocol has died down to be replaced by growing nervousness.
Official Ireland is desperate for the UK and EU to secure a “deal” that preserves the Protocol before the assembly elections that can be accepted by Unionist parties, in the vain hope that the elections do not become a referendum on the Protocol. The chances of that are next to zero. The real choice they face is a collapsed assembly with Sinn Fein in the ascendant or the removal of the Protocol. The ideal world for the Republic of Ireland’s more nationalistic politicians, where the UK, NIO and Unionists all sit back and accept the Irish Sea border and pursue a one-sided nationalist friendly legislative agenda in Westminster is and always was for the birds.
In case some in Westminster were tempted to think that this is an isolated Northern Irish problem, a failure to deal with the Protocol also has dire consequences for the mainland UK. For as long as it lasts the UK government is hamstrung in its domestic policies. A decision to cut VAT on fuel would lead to Northern Ireland (still within EU vat rules) paying a higher rate. You could create new free ports on the mainland but not in Northern Ireland and every regulation that the UK wishes to change will harden the Irish Sea Border. In short the Protocol is a dead weight on the Government’s political programme.
So now is decision time. In the coming days the UK Government has to start the process for removing the Irish Sea Border. This is not an easy task but failure to do so will have catastrophic effects on Northern Ireland, the UK generally and in the Republic of Ireland. Nowhere gained as much from the peace process as the Celtic Tiger: nowhere has as much to lose as they do from Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney’s chickens coming home to roost.
Christopher Howarth is advisor to the European Research Group pf Tory MPs and is himself a former Tory parliamentary candidate.