Fear of all-island economy drives unionist opposition to NI protocol

Dublin should act with flexibility and pace to defuse concerns

Why do the political institutions in Northern Ireland – which enjoy widespread, if grudging, acceptance across the community – face a serious impending crisis?

The answer lies not just with the destabilising effect of Brexit but the effect of Theresa May’s surprisingly poor performance in the general election of 2017. The DUP enjoyed, on the other hand, an unexpectedly strong performance, gaining (at 36 per cent), a significantly higher share of the electorate than the opinion polls had predicted.

Unfortunately, if understandably, this triumph induced an overconfident mood within the party. Some comrades were dizzy with success. Theresa May now needed their votes in order to survive as prime minister.

However, as Parnell and Redmond could have told the DUP, exploiting such an apparent advantage is no easy matter: to be a truly potent force at Westminster, the DUP had to be prepared to defenestrate Mrs May in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, a long-term friend of Sinn Féin.

Furthermore, May was now frantically determined to get a deal with the EU as a justification for her premiership, while the UK’s negotiating position on Northern Irish matters became significantly weaker in late 2017. Michel Barnier’s memoir, La Grande Illusion, shows his keen sense of May’s weakness as well as a somewhat unsure grasp of some of the key essentials of the Good Friday Agreement.

Inevitably and understandably, the Irish government exploited UK weakness

But there was no successful British challenge on this point. As Rory Montgomery, a leading Irish official, later noted in Fortnight, the UK in this epoch essentially allowed the Irish government to “present itself as the primary guardian of the Good Friday Agreement”, when, in fact, it is undisputedly a joint guardianship with the heavier financial and political burdens falling on the UK.

Inevitably and understandably, the Irish government exploited UK weakness. The (UK-EU) December 2017 joint report injects the theme of protection of the “island economy” into public debate.

In 1998 both the British and Irish governments accepted there were two economies on the island of Ireland. In certain respects, there is today an island economy, for example in agri-food and electricity, but it remains the case that the dominant reality of Irish economic life is the handling of increased interaction between two very different economies.

The loose and vague use of the term “island economy” in nationalist circles merely fuels the unionist fear that the protocol is essentially creating an economic united Ireland not just protecting the EU single market. This economic united Ireland created by the protocol will then, it is thought, undermine the union.

We have been here before: it was a key point in the opposition to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It fell by the wayside because it was trumped by reality, the principal elements of which remain in place: Northern Ireland with its large public sector depends on the UK subvention of £15 billion while the Republic depends on its brilliant success in attracting foreign direct investment.

However, this renewed sense of threat has made the DUP’s position rather weaker.

In 2018 and 2019 the DUP were not pushing for a “hard Brexit”. Nigel Dodds’s wistful interview on Newsnight was a clear example. They continuously explored behind the scenes with the May government a number of different proposals for compromise. These efforts only stopped when John Bercow, the then House of Commons speaker, effectively prevented May from bringing her withdrawal agreement back for another vote.

In the end, events – the Johnson premiership, a new withdrawal agreement and a general election – moved faster than they, or indeed the majority of MPs in parliament, were expecting. Their own performance in the 2019 general election was considerably less impressive than that of 2017.

The DUP has struggled with the accusation that it is either being too hard or too soft on the protocol. The most important attack is from the right: recent polls suggest that the anti-Good Friday Agreement TUV may well have the votes to push the DUP behind Sinn Féin in the next Assembly election. The Ulster Unionist Party under a new leadership is also enjoying a revival in its fortunes. Jeffrey Donaldson – we can be sure reluctantly – has been forced to initiate DUP withdrawal from the institutions.

The Good Friday Agreement imposes a duty on the UK to protect the economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland and to follow the principle of equality of esteem. At this moment, this requires rather more cross-community support for the post-Brexit arrangements than exists.

As former taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the House of Lords select committee on October 25th, 2016: “I know that in the first instance people said that everything had to be dealt with through Europe, but there is the small matter of an international agreement – the Good Friday Agreement – which says different. You cannot stand that down, whether you like it or not.” This was a good message for the Lords in 2016; it is a good message for the Irish Government today.

The danger now is that we are witnessing erosion of the historic compromise of 1998

The objective of the protocol is not simply to protect Ireland’s place in the single market without erecting a hard border. The key here is to note the protocol’s acceptance of “the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”.

Then link it with the objective of strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement: “harmonious and mutually beneficial relationships” including, specifically, Northern Ireland/ GB relationships.

The danger now is that we are witnessing erosion of the historic compromise of 1998. It is worth acting with flexibility and pace to avoid such a disastrous outcome. Neither is this simply a requirement of conservation.

If the agreement survives this crisis, it is likely to be revitalised. As Donaldson noted in these pages (Letters, July 8th, 2019), enhanced consensual co-operation is the way to move away from the tensions of recent times which have threatened to reignite the cold war between North and South.

But is anyone in Dublin listening?