Alex Kane: Unionism must choose between compromise and chaos

Primary task for unionism is to find compromise required to best secure the union

The late Sir David Goodall (deputy secretary in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet during the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement) wrote, in his just-published memoir The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: "I thought the circumstances of Northern Ireland were such as to make it impossible for it to function contentedly either as an integral part of the United Kingdom tout court, or as part of a united Ireland, or on the basis of simple majority rule. There had to be some compromise whereby continuance of the Union could be assured while at the same time the character of the Northern State was reformed so as to legitimise nationalist aspirations and give them a link of some kind with the Republic."

Now it looks like the ‘compromise’ in relation to the continuance of the union will have to be of a very different nature to the one suggested in 1985. Different, too, to the supposed compromise of 1998. This delivered an outcome best described as two governments in the one Executive; both targeting the competing and often contradictory interests of their own voter base, while deploying David Trimble’s “constructive ambiguity” to justify their interpretation of the purpose and end goals of the Belfast Agreement. To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty: for the DUP and Sinn Féin the Belfast Agreement means just what they choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

For every hint from the UK side that Johnson intends to be tough with the European Union there's another hint which tells a separate story

Demographics and events have changed the dynamics far beyond the realities which Goodall was writing about. They have shifted further since 1998 – so far, in fact, I’m not sure if compromise is even possible. Key figures in the Irish Government concede the likelihood of a Border poll (although no set-in-stone time, yet); and it remains unlikely Boris Johnson will make the changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol which unionism demands.

The protocol vexes unionism. For every hint from the UK side that Johnson intends to be tough with the European Union there’s another hint which tells a separate story. On Friday, August 13th, the Northern Ireland Office responded to a question about the protocol: “We are seeking to agree significant changes... not to scrap it. Accordingly, it is important we employ talented people to ensure it delivers on its core objectives-minimising disruption to everyday lives and safeguarding the [Belfast] Good Friday Agreement.’

At the same time the UK department for international trade circulated an internal document citing the advantages of the protocol among reasons to invest in the UK, trumpeting the free access to both the EU and British markets.

Goodall also noted in 1985: “The Cabinet also discussed likely unionist reactions. It was recognised that these might be severe... but it was doubted whether there would be a sustained campaign of violent protest.” That observation remains relevant today. I’m fairly sure Johnson has concluded there isn’t an appetite across most of unionism to pick a fight with the government; and there may also be a view that loyalism can be calmed and assuaged with a combination of funding, amnesties for their members and some sort of forum where their voice will be heard.

The calculation unionists must make is brutal: how much do they trust the UK government to scrap the protocol, remove the 'new' border and risk a complete breakdown of relations with the EU?

The primary task for unionism is to find the ‘compromise’ required to best secure the union and make Sinn Féin’s pro-united Ireland argument harder to sell to a southern electorate and political establishment which is probably content – for some time at least – not to import a major political/societal headache by way of a successful unity Border poll.

The calculation unionists must make is brutal: how much do they trust the UK government to scrap the protocol, remove the ‘new’ border and risk a complete breakdown of relations with the EU? Or, putting that another way, given what happened to the DUP after 2017, when the entire Johnson-steered European Reform Group and the rest of the parliamentary Conservative Party eventually abandoned it, is there any evidence to suggest it would be wise to force his government to choose between the interests of Northern Irish political unionism and the much bigger, broader interests of the UK?

The difficulty for unionism is the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. That weakened the DUP’s negotiating position from the start. The only thing that would alter it is an Assembly election (due by May 2022) in which unionism emerges with 46-plus seats (an overall majority: they have only 40 now) and a combined vote lead over the other parties, too. I don’t know if that’s possible, but it is certainly the target being aimed at.

That aside, the choices facing unionism aren’t easy. Bring down the Assembly (which means direct rule). Embark on a course of incremental instability (which some in loyalism favour). Reset policy on the protocol and learn to live with it (which would seriously divide key sections of unionism and loyalism). Pursue one strategy after another and hope one succeeds. Trust Johnson. Or just pray for a miracle (which would probably have to involve Johnson anyway). For now, though, the focus will be on a collective effort to maximise votes and seats and convince tens of thousands of former voters to return to the polling booth.

Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party