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Fintan O’Toole: Unionists should see through Tories’ latest cynical protocol gambit

Boris Johnson and his acolytes will risk anything in order to protect Brexit project

We must hope, for the sake of their mental health, that no one tells the Democratic Unionist Party that the Pope is a Catholic.

A few weeks ago, Ian Paisley jnr had an almost equally shattering eureka moment. Like a pilot emerging from a fog to see that he is heading straight for a cliff face, he discerned in front of him the grim contours of the reality that is shaping the political future of these islands.

Speaking on GB News (the media forest where there is no one to hear the tree fall), Paisley complained that “I believe that the Conservative Party today is becoming more and more an English nationalist party that doesn’t really understand what’s going on in Scotland, certainly in Northern Ireland, and in other regions.”

It’s the “becoming” that is so winsome in that sentence. Rip van Paisley rubs his eyes and sees that the internet is becoming quite popular, that the climate is becoming hot, that Vladimir Putin is becoming belligerent. And that the Conservative and Unionist Party has long ceased to be either.

The Book of Revelations was one of Paisley’s father’s favourite reads. Nowadays, the party he founded seems to be finally getting round to the Book of Well, Duh.

English nationalist party

The Tories have long since been remodelled by Brexit into an English nationalist party. In the 2016 referendum, 74 per cent of those who felt “English not British” voted Leave, while only 38 per cent of those who felt “British but not English” did so.

In 2019, a YouGov poll asked Conservative Party members to say which scenarios they would favour if they were necessary to achieve Brexit. Sixty-three per cent of them said they would regard “Scotland leaving the UK” as a price worth paying. Fifty-nine per cent said the same about “Northern Ireland leaving the UK”.

If you don’t get this, you can’t grasp the most important thing about the British government’s attitude to the Northern Ireland protocol: it is performative, not principled. It is an English nationalist party using the Irish question to distract from the failures and contradictions of its own project.

Last week, the British “minister for Brexit opportunities” (a title equivalent in rank and prestige to grand admiral of the Swiss navy), Jacob Rees-Mogg, threatened that Boris Johnson’s imploding regime would unilaterally “reform” the protocol if the European Union failed to so in the coming weeks.

The plain fact is that the protocol doesn't matter very much even to the people who are supposed to be outraged by it

He told the EU scrutiny committee of the House of Commons that his government had signed the protocol – and had sold it to the electorate as a wonderful deal – without ever intending to honour it: “We signed it on the basis that it would be reformed. And there comes a point at which you say: ‘Well, you haven’t reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves.’ And the United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement that we have with any foreign power.”

Let’s, for a moment, take this at face value. It means that Johnson is preparing to start a trade war with the EU while a real war is raging in Ukraine. It means that the “foreign power” the British government sees as the most immediate threat is not Putin’s Russia but the alliance of European democracies.

So, on second thoughts, let’s not take this at face value. Let’s see it for what it is: a recklessly cynical attempt to distract from the ignominious collapse of Johnson’s authority by using Northern Ireland to generate an artificial conflict with the EU.

Casus belli

The protocol is the new War of Jenkins’s Ear. In 1738, Britain’s government wanted to go to war with Spain, but lacked a casus belli. It discovered Robert Jenkins, whose ear had been cut off seven years previously in a row with the Spanish coast guard.

Nobody really cared about the sailor’s lug. And very few people in London care very much about the people of Northern Ireland and what they actually want. They are just an appendage that justifies a rhetorical war against the “foreign power” of Brussels.

The plain fact is that the protocol doesn’t matter very much even to the people who are supposed to be outraged by it. In February, an Irish News/Institute of Irish Studies poll found that just over one in 10 unionists regard the protocol as the most important issue in the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Tories are rattling a sabre that doesn’t cut half as deep as they pretend.

Unionists should have more pride in themselves than to allow themselves to be used like this. Not least because the only cause that is really being fought for is one that is already lost – saving Johnson’s skin.

When the serial betrayer Johnson and his absurdist acolyte Rees-Mogg are wrapping themselves in the Union flag, it is only to cover the increasingly exposed nakedness of their English nationalist project.

Even the DUP can see that now. The sugar rush of Brexit is all spent. What remains are the chancers who surfed it to power and who will risk anything – the stability of Northern Ireland, even the unity of the democracies in the face of Putin’s aggression – to try to hold on to it.