‘Very dangerous period’ for North-South relations following Foster’s departure
Experts say DUP upheaval and NI protocol row will put pressure on Belfast Agreement
The North’s Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots, the frontrunner to succeed Arlene Foster as DUP leader, has boycotted a North-South ministerial conference. Handout photograph: Edwin Poots/PA Wire
The ousting of Arlene Foster as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will lead to a difficult and turbulent period ahead – not alone for the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol, but also for North-South relations, senior politicians, diplomats and commentators have said.
Diplomatic sources believe it’s “going to be difficult for a period to come”. They have taken the decision by the North’s Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots – the frontrunner to succeed Foster – to boycott a North-South ministerial conference as “not a great signal”.
“Whoever comes in is not going to portray themselves as less staunch than Arlene. Where do they go?”
On Brexit, a source said a means of avoiding the large number of checks in Larne and Belfast would be if the UK had incorporated EU food and animal standards as its own. Politically, the source said, the UK has never signalled it is prepared to do that.
Rory Montgomery, a former Irish ambassador to the EU, an honorary professor at Queen’s University Belfast and a public policy fellow at Trinity College Dublin, agrees with the assessment.
You have to be afraid. We have had this unclear DUP policy of boycotting North-South meetings because of the protocol
“On the assumption it is Edwin Poots or somebody more conservative than Arlene Foster, it puts the North-South institutions and thereby the functioning of the [Belfast] Agreement as a whole under a lot of pressure,” he says.
“It’s impossible to see how Poots could move away from the DUP approach to the protocol that was adopted at the end of January.
“In other words, it might have been hoped that Arlene Foster herself might see that her calling for the protocol to be scrapped was utterly a losing cause, and if she and Nigel Dodds are the scapegoats, which is very unfair, how is her successor going to take a softer line?”
Montgomery says it is not possible for unionists to reverse the protocol. “Opposing it as a constitutional principle puts them in a very difficult position and I don’t see how they can, quickly at any rate, reverse out of that position.”
Turning to the North-South dynamic, he is blunt: “You have to be afraid. We have had this unclear DUP policy of boycotting North-South meetings because of the protocol.”
That cannot continue indefinitely, he says. “I don’t think Sinn Féin will tolerate a situation where there is a wholesale extended boycott of the North-South institutions.”
There is also strong consensus that the stance of the Irish Government played little or no part in the events that led to Foster’s downfall. Indeed, there is a view that once it got the “hospital pass” when the European Commission threatened to trigger article 16 of the protocol in a row over vaccines, there has been a view in some EU states that the Government has in fact been too conciliatory.
Montgomery says the Government’s stance during negotiations of defending the Belfast Agreement and retaining an open Border was a Government doing “exactly what you would expect it to do”.
He makes one observation in this regard, though: “In the preparation for Brexit, the overwhelming attention was focused on exports. We did not sufficiently pay attention to imports which are causing problems now.”
What is happening is very difficult to determine. We have to be understanding of the real sense of vulnerability within unionism
Labour’s Brendan Howlin, an experienced member of the Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs, believes North-South relations are entering into a “very dangerous period”.
“There has been an incredible reaction to the whole protocol because there is a feeling of existential threat to unionism that crystallised around this issue and was vented on Arlene Foster in so much as she was the one in charge of protecting the union and allowed herself to be beguiled by Boris Johnson into believing all things were well.
“What is happening is very difficult to determine. We have to be understanding of the real sense of vulnerability within unionism.”
At the same time, Howlin says he genuinely believes there is nothing that the Government or the EU could have done.
“Once hardline Brexit was accepted, they were going to opt out of the single market. The choice was simple. You would have two territorial markets between the two jurisdictions, you had to have a dividing line and that was in the Irish Sea or on the island of Ireland.
“There is no way of making that simply vanish or go away,” he says.
At a meeting of the European affairs committee on Monday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney struck a conciliatory approach to seeking accommodation on the protocol.
“He’s the State chief diplomat - he should be diplomatic. The bottom line is when you win the argument, then you have to be generous to people at the table and make them feel not aggrieved by it. It is a legally binding settlement and can’t be changed,” says Howlin.
“The EU was always determined to defend the single market. They were going to have a clear dividing line between goods outside the EU and inside.
“The next phase is a fundamental question for the DUP. Will they turn to a hardliner who will fight the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, not participate in North-South ministerial meetings, resist the rulings already given for the Irish language?”
If they do, he says, that will give rise to a very challenging period indeed.