‘Unionism is in turmoil’: Worry in Dublin as North threatens to regress

Government is keen to make NI protocol as acceptable to unionists as possible

Violence in loyalist areas of Belfast is "even worse now than it was in the Troubles" according to some local residents. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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There is rising alarm in Government circles in Dublin at the sustained nature of the street violence in loyalist areas in Northern Ireland during the past week.

Dublin, like governments everywhere, is devoting most of its time and energy to dealing with the pandemic, but recent days have underscored the destabilising effects of Brexit on the North, widely predicted and long feared by senior officials but not observed on the streets until this week’s incendiary scenes.

“The guy could have been torched alive in that bus,” said one shocked official in Dublin.

Micheál Martin sees improving relations between Dublin and Belfast – and especially the unionist part of the executive – as a priority for his term as Taoiseach, but the truth is that, despite a potentially productive personal relationship with First Minister Arlene Foster, relations with the DUP are in cold storage since Foster launched her campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol.

Yesterday Martin spoke to prime minister Boris Johnson by telephone about the disturbances, but the brief statement issued by Government Buildings afterwards did not go much beyond platitudes. “Stressing that violence is unacceptable, they called for calm,” the statement read.

The White House, indicating an interest in Northern Ireland that may be significant for the future, also called for calm.

As did the Northern Executive, making a change from sniping among its leaders, who appear to blame each other for the violence (and most other things).

Privately senior sources in Dublin tend to be critical of some DUP politicians, who they believe laid the foundations for loyalist unrest with attacks on the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the EU-UK withdrawal treaty that involves different rules for the North and the rest of the UK.

The brutal truth is that, while there may be scope to manage its application, there will be no renegotiation of the protocol

“Their language has staked all this out, right back to ‘blood red lines’,” says one Dublin source, referring to Foster’s fierce resistance to the proposals of then prime minister Theresa May. These proposals would have meant considerably fewer barriers between the North and Britain but the DUP helped destroy them, along with their originator.

Johnson’s promises

Back then Johnson was attending the DUP conference and cheered when he promised them there would be no barriers between different parts of the UK. As prime minister, he concluded the deal that imposed the “sea border” loyalists now rail against. Unionists were once again brought face to face with their oldest and deepest fears – not expansionism from Dublin, but betrayal from London.

Dublin understands that the roots of this week’s violence go deep. “Those 13-year-olds aren’t angry about customs forms,” says one person in Dublin well-briefed on the Government’s thinking. “Unionism is in turmoil.”

Dublin also understands that it can’t do anything about Bobby Storey’s Covid rule-breaking funeral, or unionism’s ancestral unease as it contemplates Scottish independence or the psychological scars of yet another betrayal from a UK government.

But it can and does have a voice on the application of the protocol, and it does have an interest in making it as acceptable to unionist sensitivities as possible. Sources in Dublin are hyper-sensitive on the point, as it forces them to straddle the precarious line between Dublin’s interests in the North and its responsibilities to the EU.

But the brutal truth is that, while there may be scope to manage its application, there will be no renegotiation of the protocol as unionists demand. Neither the EU nor London is interested in a renegotiation, and Dublin certainly isn’t going to push for one.

Further contacts between the two governments are likely, with a visit by Simon Coveney to London next week for talks with the UK government understood to be on the cards. Optimism that politicians in either government can defuse the tensions is not high, however; that is a task that only really be achieved on the ground. There is little sign of it.