DUP needs protocol conversion therapy

Party needs to own Northern Ireland protocol if it wants Irish unity debate to go away

The Wild Atlantic Way, arguably the most spectacular and awe-inspiring coastline in Western Europe, comes to an abrupt end – if you're travelling north – in the small Donegal village of Muff.

A road sign marks the "End" of the 1,600-mile (2,600 km) route, which starts back in the historic port town of Kinsale. Tourists are directed by another sign to "Follow Coleraine for Causeway Coastal Route".

The Causeway route, Northern Ireland's part, kicks in a few miles down the road – across the Border in Derry – and continues the great sweep of Atlantic coast around the head of Ireland, taking in the Giant's Causeway and the glens of Antrim.

The fact that Ireland's main tourist asset is partitioned and marketed separately by two competing tourist organisations – Fáilte Ireland markets it under its "Call of the Wild" banner while Tourism NI has its own "Embrace a Giant Spirit" campaign – and not as contiguous whole, is mind-numbingly stupid when the majority of tourists come in through one gateway, Dublin.

It is also symbolic of how the peace process has failed to engender a spirit of co-operation befitting the political compromise that spawned it. The truce was meant to allow for economic co-operation without the toxicity of politics and areas such as tourism were seen as the low-hanging, least divisive fruits in the equation.

Peace, however, hasn't delivered an economic dividend for the North. The Northern Ireland economy has slipped further and further behind the rest of the UK since the 1998 Belfast Agreement and is now the poorest and least productive region in the UK.

Deep-rooted issues

Much of the recent disturbances in the North might be happening in the context of Brexit and the controversy surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol but they stem from deep-rooted social and economic issues that politics has failed to address.

Everything is still contested, still riven by tribalism. The North-South bodies are talking shops with no real power and marred by a lack of unionist engagement. The North’s devolved government has been inoperable for three of the last five years. Peace without reconciliation is an apt if overused phrase.

SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin recently asked DUP economy minister Diane Dodds whether Stormont's tourism recovery steering group intended to bring forward a plan and programme to connect the Causeway coast and Wild Atlantic Way in terms of joint promotion, other joint marketing and route signage.

In her reply, Dodds queried the economic rationale of doing so while raising concerns about whether the North’s brand might be diluted under such a joint initiative.

“The economic rationale for creating a new coastal tourist trail linking the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coastal Route would need to be fully understood and have the agreement of the industry, Tourism Northern Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and the local authorities on both sides of the Border,” Dodds said.

“In addition, the implementation of a new coastal tourist trail would have to be undertaken in a way that makes sense from a consumer perspective and executed in a way that would not dilute the new Northern Ireland brand [Embrace a Giant Spirit] or convey conflicting messages to the tourism industry, trade operators or consumers,” she said.

The DUP’s modus operandi is to stymie co-operation, which is seen solely through the lens of creeping Dublin involvement in the North’s affairs.

It’s currently fighting to throw off the Northern Ireland protocol – the provision in the Brexit withdrawal agreement that seeks to avoid a hard border on the island.

Economic advantage

Its hostile rhetoric makes no mention of the economic advantage the protocol confers on Northern Ireland, one that was thought near impossible at the start Brexit negotiations, namely to be simultaneously inside the European Union’s single market and customs union for goods and outside it – the “having your cake and eating it” option.

The protocol means firms based in the North can simultaneously sell into the UK – the biggest consumer market in Europe – and the EU single market – the biggest consumer market in the world.

A new report issued by agriculture minister Edwin Poots’s own department claims the protocol offers a competitive advantage to local fisheries over their competitors in the rest of the UK.

Invest Northern Ireland and InterTradeIreland, however, cannot trumpet this advantage as both organisations answer into North’s DUP-led economy ministry and therefore must market the North’s win-win situation secretly, quietly, under the cover of darkness.

The longer the DUP keeps fighting against the North’s economic self-interest, the more the question of Irish unity will keep coming up.

Middle-ground politics in the North has shifted from being more or less content with the status quo to being open to alternatives, including possible reunification with the south.

This is precisely because the DUP’s position on Brexit, the protocol and on social issues such as marriage equality and abortion is alienating young and moderate unionists.

If the party wants to steer the middle ground in a different direction, it’s going to have to steer the North’s economy in a different direction and that means owning the protocol, exploiting its advantages and, where is it advantageous, pooling resources with the south.

The party’s increasingly defensive stance is, however, fuelling its own worst nightmare, unity.