Northern Ireland protocol: Unionism shoots itself in the foot

Looming red flag of duplicity and ulterior motives flies higher than any union flag

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU. It was always going to be this way. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/ Getty

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU. It was always going to be this way. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/ Getty

 

After the better part of half a decade spent as a playing piece on the Brexit board game, the people of Northern Ireland remain caught up in the turbulent and exhausting cycle of this particular fantasy.

In the midst of a global pandemic, as both people and businesses cry out for stability, unionist parties in the North have joined forces with some of the most fervently right-wing Brexiteers to conjure up a haphazard legal argument that strings together the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 with a 200-year-old Act of Parliament – The Act of the Union 1800. To do so invites further instability and uncertainty.

Campaigner Emma de Souza. It seems to me that those currently supporting default British citizenship do so from a place of privilege and with little foresight
Emma de Souza is a commentator and campaigner for citizens’ rights

Many of those involved in taking legal action against the NI protocol have openly opposed the Belfast Agreement or, worse yet, called for the peace treaty to be scrapped entirely. Therein lies the looming red flag of duplicity and ulterior motives, flying higher than any union flag, and blanketing the citizens of this region in its stagnating shadow.

But this fight is not about the people of Northern Ireland. It isn’t even about the peace process. It is about an unattainable version of Brexit. One which would have only ever benefited those who have habitually sought to squelch progress and growth in order to serve their own desires.

Political unionism uniting against the protocol leaves those within unionism who support the protocol with little political space to call home

Those who genuinely believed the fallout from Brexit would be the same in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK failed to recognise that Northern Ireland was – and has always been – a place apart. The Belfast Agreement exemplifies that separation; it applies only in Northern Ireland – not Scotland, not Wales, nor anywhere else in Britain.

It provides a constitutional mechanism to enable Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom. We hold a raft of wholly unique rights, entitlements and protections, all of which have come under severe pressure from Brexit. Setting all these glaring points aside and instead analysing this dilemma purely geographically, Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU. It was always going to be this way.

Motivation

It is, of course, a fundamental principle in a democratic society to be able to proceed before the courts; those pursuing litigation against the NI protocol are perfectly within their rights to do so. However, as political representatives, there is an onus on them to be honest about both their motivations and their preferred outcomes.

The announcement of this latest litigation came from former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, who voted for the very deal with which he now takes issue. Both former MP Kate Hoey and True Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister were initially cited as co-litigants. Both are openly opposed to the Belfast Agreement.

Kate Hoey recently advocated a border on the island of Ireland: “That is our frontier, it is a different country, that’s where the border should have been.”

This sentiment was echoed by Ben Habib in recent social media videos. Jim Allister, who has referred to the Belfast Agreement as “poisonous to the union” and called for the treaty to be scrapped in its entirety, now proposes to defend the accord’s integrity if it means his party might be able to stop the NI protocol from proceeding.

That the DUP joined this litigation is unsurprising. After all, they are the true architects of Brexit in Northern Ireland, and the only major party to have campaigned against the Belfast Agreement.

The UUP’s decision, on the other hand, was more unexpected, considering their initial opposition to Brexit and pivotal role in negotiating the Belfast Agreement. It may prove politically treacherous for the party to have allowed itself to be caught up in a mess of the DUP’s making.

Brexit game

Political unionism uniting against the protocol leaves those within unionism who support the protocol, or who voted against Brexit, with little political space to call home. Unionism no longer holds a majority in Northern Ireland. Opting for reruns of a tired Brexit game instead of seeking workable solutions to the protocol will only further shrink their base.

That unionist representatives take issue with the lack of a democratic mandate for the NI protocol, yet wilfully ignore the absence of a comparable mandate for Brexit, is a prime example of the hypocrisy and exceptionalism that many of us in Northern Ireland have come to expect from this process.

Five years on, Brexit remains deeply divisive, namely because the people of Northern Ireland voted against it in the first place

It is, for some, an uncomfortable truth that their beloved Brexit received no mandate in Northern Ireland.

The DUP, along with many other unionist representatives, has consistently argued against any principle of devolved consent in regards to Brexit. Consent – it seems – is required only when it suits one’s own political objectives.

Five years on, Brexit remains deeply divisive, namely because the people of Northern Ireland voted against it in the first place. We often hear the term “consent” in reference to Northern Ireland, but rarely is the individual’s consent truly considered.

The outcome of this litigation – whatever it might be – will not resolve the democratic deficit that is further polarising communities and threatening the stability of our political institutions, nor will it address legitimate concerns. This isn’t sustainable.

It may be that the only way to truly resolve this deficit is to give the actual people affected the right to vote. It’s a potential political reality and a legitimate democratic solution.

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