Protocol row reopens Unionist fears of another Northern Ireland sell–out

EU–UK talks aimed at overhauling the Northern Ireland protocol remain far from resolution, officials conceded, as the UK continues to prepare for the fallout from suspending the protocol.

Sell–out, betrayal and sacrifice are all key words in the lexicon of Northern Irish politics for both the nationalist and unionist communities, and those in between. Brexit, and the Northern Ireland protocol, in particular, have brought them back into popular use.

The murals on the Falls and Shankill roads, a legacy of the Troubles and a generation of sectarian violence ended by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, may have become an unlikely tourist attraction in West Belfast but the tensions between republicans and loyalists remain.

Officials fear that the ingredients needed for sectarian violence still exist, as seen in rioting by the loyalist community in March.

Identity is at the heart of politics in Northern Ireland, and the UK’s exit from the EU has challenged the identities of many different communities. A narrow majority across the province, thanks to large majorities among Irish nationalist and republican communities, wanted to stay in the EU. Then came the Irish protocol.

On paper, the Northern Ireland protocol gives it privileged status by keeping the province inside the EU’s single market for goods. In reality, because it effectively carved it out of the UK’s own single market and established customs checks on products travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, many feel their Britishness has been compromised.

“I consider myself British and Northern Irish, and European,” a unionist official told EURACTIV. “If you take away that identity, you diminish me. Brexit has left many people in Northern Ireland, particularly on the nationalist side, but not exclusively, feeling diminished.”

“We don’t like things being imposed on us, and we feel that the protocol was imposed against our will and without consultation,” he added.

Another moderate unionist lawmaker said Brexit and the protocol represent “Unionism’s biggest own goal in a hundred years.” He added that the Ulster Unionist Party had warned about the need for a border arrangement during the referendum campaign.

The EU had played an important role in Northern Ireland’s economic development and the peace process. The province had been a net beneficiary from EU membership and is still receiving EU money for policing projects.

However, trust, a key element of the peace process, has evaporated.

“We don’t trust the Johnson government, and we feel that we have been sacrificed so that Boris Johnson could say that he had got ‘Brexit done’,” said the unionist official.

“One thing about the unionist community is that we are always looking at who is going to betray us. In this case, there is hard evidence that Boris Johnson did sell us out. That is dangerous, particularly on the street,” he added.

At the mercy of London and Brussels

The protocol has also left a long–term accountability problem in the province: Northern Ireland is effectively at the mercy of the European Commission and Westminster.

The fact that the Northern Ireland executive, the province’s devolved government, was stalled for three years from 2017 has severely set back relations with Brussels. In the meantime, the perception has grown among unionists that the European Commission is only listening to the Irish government in Dublin.

The dispute over the protocol is complicated by Northern Ireland’s political calendar and the shifting sands of its politics, particularly on the unionist side. Elections to the Northern Ireland assembly will be held within the next year. After more than a decade in the political wilderness, the moderate Ulster Unionist Party is set to reclaim its place as the largest unionist party.

In late September, the four main unionist parties signed a joint statement calling for the protocol to be scrapped, a move that the UK government leapt upon as evidence of unity across the unionist community.

However, it is not quite that simple. The UUP play down the idea of rigid unity. “We’ve got an election next year,” one lawmaker said.

Furthermore, as UUP officials also point out, the statement also ties parties to support the Good Friday Agreement, which the DUP opposed for many years.

Border and Good Friday

One proposal mooted by the UUP to resolve the EU’s insistence on protecting the integrity of the single market is a new law stating that those who sell goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland with the view to moving them to the Republic would be committing an offence.

“There’s a land border on this island, but you don’t notice it. If the protocol becomes as insignificant as the land border (between NI-Ireland), then we’ve got a deal,” says the UUP official.

In shops, meanwhile, there is daily evidence of the protocol’s impact. A bulb commemorating Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband who died in April, is available in Britain but not Northern Ireland.

Since the unionist community tends to be far more royalist than the English, this is another uncomfortable symbol of how Northern Ireland has been separated from the rest of the UK.

“Arguments about sovereignty are abstract and nebulous but in the post–Brexit era, what is more important is consumer choice,” said Christopher Stalford, a DUP lawmaker.

“It will really bite at Christmas when people can’t buy things for their children,” he added.

However, not all local politicians see the protocol as an existential threat. Stewart Dickson, a lawmaker for the Alliance party, described the protocol as “a child of necessity…a unique set of circumstances to protect the Good Friday Agreement but also to protect free movement.”

“Without it, the border would be impossible to manage,” he added.

Some, however, see the protocol as a major opportunity for Northern Ireland’s economy to take advantage of being part of the EU’s single market.

“We can benefit from the protocol. We have one foot in the EU, and we could benefit from UK free trade deals,” said Dickson, who explained that many businesses have now reorganised their supply chains and are looking at the opportunities of the new situation.

“I do understand some of the fears that Unionists might have…but I think they over–worry,” he said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/ Alice Taylor]

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