When Boris Johnson became prime minister on July 24th, 2019, the DUP was very pleased. It was very confident that Theresa May's withdrawal agreement and unionist-loathed backstop would be shredded and binned. After all, in November 2018, Johnson had addressed its annual conference in Belfast and, to roars of approval, promised that Northern Ireland would not be reduced to some sort of semi-colonial status while he was around.
But his deal, which took Britain out of the EU, while leaving Northern Ireland partly within it, was much worse than May's backstop, which planned to keep the entire UK in the customs union and much of the single market. The Northern Ireland protocol resulted in the North being treated very differently from the rest of the UK and placed in a position not dissimilar to that of a semi-colonial constitutional granny flat.
There may be an argument that the protocol allows Northern Ireland to have the “best of both worlds” (something which Arlene Foster hinted at in January – a view which kickstarted the final countdown on her leadership). But this is only if unionism is prepared to accept the price for that option, which is a “border” between the North and Britain and a potentially very significant shift in the political/economic/constitutional relationship between the two.
Johnson is aware of the problem the protocol presents for unionism, not least it is seen as another massive betrayal by a UK government
Party-political unionism (the DUP, UUP, TUV and a few fringe parties), along with elements of older and younger loyalism, and the Orange Order, insist – for now – they are not willing to pay the price. Their fear is that accepting what would be, to all intents and purposes, a changed relationship with the rest of the UK would make it much harder to insist that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK. And that, in turn, could raise problems in the event of a Border poll (which seems likely within the next decade or so).
Johnson is aware of the problem the protocol presents for unionism, not least it is seen as another massive betrayal by a UK government. He is aware of it because the DUP was telling him about it every day between July 2017 and December 2019, when it was propping up the Conservatives in government. Yet he was willing to attend its annual conference and not tell the truth to them. Willing to attend an event hosted by the party at the Conservatives’ own conference in 2019 – and not tell the truth to them. Willing to attend a general election event in Belfast in December 2019 – and again not tell them the truth.
And while last Wednesday’s command paper on the protocol from the UK government was strong on rhetoric about the constitutional integrity of the union and the need to recognise and accommodate unionist concerns about the impact of the protocol, it was noticeably weak and ambiguous on how, precisely, the concerns would be addressed. Noticeably weak, too, on how far Johnson would be prepared to go to protect unionist concerns.
Party-political unionism was reasonably welcoming of the paper. Mind you, it had to be, because the prime minister is the only key player who could be described as even a little sympathetic to the dilemma it faces. But I doubt if you could find one leader or influential voice in unionism who would tell you, on the record, they trust him. Johnson has no votes in the North (hovering around 1 per cent after 32 years) and no elected representatives. So, the chances of him bringing down his entire “getting Brexit done” withdrawal agreement to help Northern Ireland unionists seem remote. And unionists know it.
The question Boris Johnson will be asking is brutally simple: is there an appetite for serious instability within a significant section of unionism?
Johnson knows a majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain and there is no evidence to suggest that view has shifted. There is no evidence, either, indicating a majority of the entire pro-union community (the pro-union vote and party-political unionist vote are not the same thing) opposes the protocol. Or opposes it so much it would risk political instability, the collapse of the Assembly and picking a probably unwinnable fight with the prime minister who serially shafted unionism since 2017.
The only thing that might give Johnson cause for concern is the possibility of the recent, mostly low-key, protests from a section of loyalism tipping into violence. In that context, it’s worth quoting from David Goodall’s just published memoir, The Making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: “The Cabinet also discussed likely unionist reactions. It was recognised that these might be severe; and that there was great resentment that unionist leaders were not being consulted by the British government as the SDLP were by the Irish. But it was doubted whether there would be a sustained campaign of violent protest.”
He noted that in July 1985: and the assessment was correct because initial unionist/loyalist fury settled down quite quickly. Johnson will be listening to similar assessments from security and political sources and may already have decided to take the same risks Thatcher took in November 1985. The question he will be asking is brutally simple: is there an appetite for serious instability within a significant section of unionism?
Party-political unionism doesn’t trust Johnson, so it won’t want to force him into a choice between prioritising the North’s unionists and prioritising Britain (and the voting base which won him the election). So, the challenge for unionism is how best to get a result it can sell to its own electoral base while, at the same time, avoiding being manoeuvred by sections of loyalism into a position which makes an already difficult situation very much worse.
Johnson hopes for the former but may have to deal with the latter. What he does then is anyone’s guess. Either way, he is the worst possible ally unionism could have right now.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party