It seems much more likely than not that within the next few weeks unionism – and the DUP in particular – will be required to give a response to a protocol deal agreed by the EU and UK. Their response will depend on whether or not the deal goes far enough in persuading them that there is no longer an “existential threat” to the union and to Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.
But what is an existential threat to the union? Or, putting it another way, if the protocol remains, even in a watered-down form (which strikes me as the most likely outcome of the EU-UK deal) does it necessarily follow that the constitutional link between Britain and Northern Ireland will be sundered? Surely that could only happen if, in the event of a Border poll, a majority of voters in the North voted to end the constitutional status quo in favour of a united Ireland.
The protocol pushes Northern Ireland into the constitutional equivalent of a granny flat. Not entirely in the EU. Not entirely in the UK. But not in a united Ireland, either. So maybe not an existential threat to the union, either?
Even with the protocol, Northern Ireland would remain within the UK. Sovereign power would remain with the UK parliament. MPs from Northern Ireland would still be returned there. In the event of the Assembly collapsing, it would be the UK parliament, via the Northern Ireland Office, that would govern. There would be input from the Irish Government and a continuing recognition of the “Irish dimension” (as has been the case since October 1972), but it would still be the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland.
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Yet treating Northern Ireland entirely differently from the rest of the UK, which is what the existing protocol does, and the renegotiated version is likely to do, too, does weaken unionism’s hand in Northern Ireland. While it has always been true that Northern Ireland has been “a place apart” since 1921 (when it became the only part of the UK with a devolved government and a parliament entitled to make “locals-only” legislation), it has been a place apart within the UK. The protocol adds to that sense of apartness by placing it within EU parameters as well.
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Those who made the case that a new and hard land border in Ireland would change the political and constitutional dynamic with potentially destabilising consequences for the Belfast Agreement were right. Yet they seem blind and deaf to the argument that the Northern Ireland protocol would have a similar impact from a unionist perspective. The polling and electoral evidence does suggest that the overwhelming majority of those who vote for unionist parties have concerns now about the threat to their status and identity.
So what happens if the pending deal doesn’t rip up the protocol? What does unionism do then? There is a section of unionism and loyalism that would insist on the end of powersharing. The mantra “it’s the protocol or powersharing ... you can’t have both” has become part of their campaigning currency lately. But it is the same section of unionism and loyalism that has resolutely opposed the Belfast Agreement since 1998. It is content to use the protocol as a way of bringing down the institutions established in 1988. Even the most benign deal will be dismissed by this lobby: a lobby that has huge influence across unionism right now.
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But collapsing the Assembly brings considerable consequences: no significant unionist political or legislative presence at a local level; the UK-EU deal implemented anyway; a form of direct rule that will include input from the Irish Government; and what would be interpreted as a very clear signal that political unionism no longer prioritises devolution. More importantly, it would create an enormous gap between unionism and the political centre at Westminster. All of this could also be construed to be an existential threat to the union and local unionism.
The other problem – which also contains existential elements – is that anti-protocol unionism doesn’t seem to have a thought-through alternative if its bluff is called on the protocol. It didn’t have that thought-through alternative when Faulkner’s cabinet resigned in March 1972; or when the UUUC (United Ulster Unionist Council) strike collapsed the assembly in May 1974; or when the constitutional convention imploded in 1975; or when the anti-Anglo Irish Agreement protests fizzled out in 1986; or when the UK and Irish governments agreed the 1993 Downing Street Declaration (complete with the “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland doctrine); or when prime ministers Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak let it down. Let’s face it, unionism doesn’t appear to do thought-through strategies, preferring instead to turn in on itself and then nurture break-away factions.
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There is an argument that the protocol in and of itself does not represent an existential threat. Ironically, though, it could be the unionist response that becomes the greatest long-term threat. The greater the gap between political unionism in Northern Ireland and the broader policy interests of UK governments, then the greater the difficulty for unionists in making the case for equality of treatment as UK citizens. Unionism must not allow itself to become the existential threat to its own existence.
A premeditated and long flagged-up knee-jerk response to the protocol deal brings enormous dangers, while a rollover by the DUP would tear unionism and loyalism apart in a way not seen before. A deal that embraces the protocol in some form would be a signal that the UK government was prepared to face down unionism. The next few months will be critical for unionism. It has not been in this position for more than a century. The difference this time is that it is not the electoral majority and nor does it have reliable friends on the government or opposition benches.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party