Where is unionism’s plan to destroy the Northern Ireland protocol?

DUP and UUP’s choice of leader crucial not just for the parties but for the union

Outgoing leader of the DUP Arlene Foster, with party colleague Edwin Poots, one of the favourites to replace her. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Outgoing leader of the DUP Arlene Foster, with party colleague Edwin Poots, one of the favourites to replace her. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

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Well, here we are, barely a month away from the centenary of the first sitting of the Northern Ireland parliament, and the main unionist parties are selecting new leaders. Arlene Foster’s removal as Democratic Unionist Party leader was a spectacularly speedy and brutal defenestration. The Ulster Unionist Party doesn’t do brutal, so it allowed Steve Aiken to write a note before leaving the tent and entering the wilderness.

Both parties – especially their MLAs – are worried for their seats in an election, which is pencilled in for spring 2022, yet may come in just a few months’ time. Bizarrely, both parties are searching for new strategies to prevent the loss of votes to Alliance and the harder-line unionist party TUV. Go on, read that again: both unionist parties are worried about losing votes to Alliance, a self-confessed centrist party that is agnostic on the union.

There isn’t a pro-union party that trusts Boris Johnson as far as they could throw him. This is a man who sent gunboats to Jersey to protect “British” fish, but was content to throw in the towel when a combination of Irish and EU politicians ganged up against him over the location of the post-Brexit UK-EU border. So he just plonked one in the Irish Sea and told unionist fish not to worry about it.

And what about the Northern Ireland protocol? Johnson has just seen his support and seats grow in local elections across England, as the remnants of “new” English nationalism abandon the smaller Brexit parties and return to his Conservative Party. How likely is it that he will pick a fight with the EU on the issue when his base doesn’t give a stuff about Northern Ireland or NI unionism?

Does any unionist party have a strategy for resolving the protocol crisis? Or, putting that another way, does any unionist party have a cast-iron plan that can guarantee the binning of the protocol? If so, I haven’t heard it. Bringing down the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suggested, but it’s hard to see what that achieves other than the prospect of direct rule by the very government that delivered the protocol in the first place.

Halfway through Northern Ireland’s centenary year, we have the two main unionist parties in forms of crisis

The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) sent a letter to Johnson a few weeks ago, withdrawing support for the Belfast Agreement until the protocol was removed. They’re still waiting. A judicial review about the legality of the protocol is due to be heard in the high court in the next 10 days or so, but the background mood is very muted. Last Friday a group of unionists who signed the Belfast Agreement in 1998 wrote to the British and Irish governments and the European Commission to say the protocol “imperilled” the peace process.

Demonstrations are being organised by loyalists, complete with placards quoting Thomas Paine: “Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it”; “I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace”. Great quotes from a great political theorist: ironically, his best-known pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis, formed the intellectual bedrock of the campaign to free America from British rule.

Halfway through Northern Ireland’s centenary year, we have the two main unionist parties in forms of crisis; a complete absence of trust in the prime minister; key unionist/loyalist players at the time the Belfast Agreement was negotiated either withdrawing support for the agreement, taking legal action to protect it or writing to Johnson to ditch the protocol; and a younger generation of loyalism keen to see the entire post-1998 political process dumped.

This time the DUP’s existential moment coincides with an existential moment for the union

Yet what is missing in the melee is any sign of what happens if the leadership changes, the judicial review, the letters and the protests fail to produce a change of heart from Johnson. At the moment all of unionism is insisting that the protocol must go, but what happens if Johnson decides he won’t push for that? What happens if he treats unionism to his usual arm-waving, mostly incoherent flapdoodle and swears blindly he is committed to unionism and the union?

How far will unionism go to destroy the protocol? How great a fight is it willing to pick with Westminster and the government? Is there, in fact, an agreed line that will not be crossed by the unionist parties?

The questions are worth asking because it is not the first time unionism has found itself at loggerheads with the UK government; but it is, I think, the first time that the consequences of a misstep or miscalculation could be constitutionally catastrophic for unionism here.

In 2004 the UUP was at an existential moment, the consequence of which was the flight of votes and seats to the DUP. This time the DUP’s existential moment coincides with an existential moment for the union. For both parties, choosing the wrong leaders, with the wrong strategies (overly influenced by the TUV, Orange Order, LCC and younger loyalism) could mean ruination for their parties, for unionism and maybe even for the union itself.

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

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