For a party that has become so adept at riding the wave of populism, the British Conservative government is curiously uncomfortable with public demonstration. The queen’s speech this month confirmed its plan to bring in anti-protest laws akin to those currently used in Russia.
If successful (similar efforts were thrown out by the House of Lords last year), the rights to peaceful protest will be considerably curtailed in England and Wales – along with the erosion of other rights through the replacement of the Human Rights Act, also announced in the queen’s speech.
Yet some public protests and minority rights quite clearly are garnering the attention of the British government. Indeed, when championed by anti-protocol loyalists in Northern Ireland, they can appear to have a greater influence on government strategy than, say, the first preferences of 7 out of 10 voters or the expressed will of 63 of the 90 members of the Legislative Assembly.
The fact that such tactics deliberately and directly contradict the functioning of the 1998 Belfast Agreement should make them anathema to the British government. Instead, it has come to rely upon them.
The prime minister, the foreign secretary, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the attorney general all claim that the protocol is “fundamentally undermining” the Belfast Agreement. In so doing, they are not prioritising peace over the protocol – they are doing quite the opposite. They are giving succour to those who want to destroy the agreement in principle, and they are rewarding and reinforcing behaviour which undermines it in practice.
It is not possible for the British government to condemn loyalist violence and the DUP’s obstruction of Strand 1 and 2 institutions on the one hand while at the same time depending on such unlawful actions as the legal justification of its chosen strategy on the protocol.
In her statement to parliament on May 17th, foreign secretary Liz Truss claimed the government, as "co-signatory and co-guarantor of the Belfast Good Friday agreement",will "take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability". The "urgency" of the situation, she said, compelled the government to introduce legislation to "make changes to the protocol". This amounts to breaking one international agreement to appease those who are in the course of breaking another international agreement – under the auspices of protecting the integrity and objectives of both.
Blaming the protocol for damage to the 1998 agreement is like blaming the referee for an own goal
Some anti-protocol unionists argue that the threat of loyalist violence is no different to the purported threat of republican violence against customs infrastructure and officers on a post-Brexit hard Irish land border. They claim that the Irish Government played up this risk and that it swung the EU (and Boris Johnson in a moment of feeble-mindedness) to draw the border down the Irish Sea instead.
Such threats were identified, but they were not the only reason for avoiding a hard border. I conducted surveys and focus groups in the central Border region throughout the Brexit withdrawal process. It was not a potential return of violence that people feared most, but the threat to the peace. The two are not one and the same. Peace can be threatened not only by violence but by eroding the conditions which foster it.
Brexit risked doing so because it fundamentally changes the means and norms of co-operation across all three strands of the agreement. The protocol does not threaten peace in the same way. Blaming the protocol for damage to the 1998 agreement is like blaming the referee for an own goal.
Nevertheless, Northern Ireland has evidently been placed in a very difficult and problematic situation. It is outside the EU, and therefore there are new North-South differences. It is also partially outside the UK’s internal market, and there are new east-west differences too. Minimising such differences is an objective that should be shared by the EU as well as the UK, with both being prepared to make compromises to do so.
A danger for Northern Ireland now is that the EU, wary of seeming moved by bully-boy tactics, refuses to show flexibility at all. But the difficulties with the protocol are real, and the EU will have to adjust expectations for its implementation in light of the actual risk posed to the single market. As such, the EU and the UK would be well advised to identify the substantive evidence base for the flexibility needed. Direct and formal UK-EU joint engagement with NI officials, business and civic society should be thus prioritised.
Such acts of aggression are not motivated by the protocol. They are motivated by a refusal to let Northern Ireland prosper and grow
In the meantime, what about the genuine dangers to the Belfast Agreement? Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is not the only one who has been targeted by recent acts of loyalist intimidation. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, independent female journalists, loyalist women calling for a functioning Assembly, human rights lawyers, female candidates canvassing in unionist areas... All have been targets. Such acts of aggression are not motivated by the protocol. They are motivated by a refusal to let Northern Ireland prosper and grow.
Efforts to silence others by force or fear are sinister and anti-democratic, no matter what form they take or by whom. Equally dangerous is the amplification of those who have nothing to offer but force and fear.
Katy Hayward is Professor of Political Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast