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London Letter: Belfast banter in Westminster reveals protocol home truths

Since protocol Bill was introduced the DUP’s romance with the Conservatives is back on again.

Perched along the front of the press gallery overlooking the House of Commons chamber, Hansard reporters miss very little as they record every speech including interventions, interjections and heckles. But an exchange involving DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood on Monday was so short and fast that it appears in the official record simply as [interruption].

MPs were debating the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would give ministers the power to unilaterally scrap the protocol almost in its entirety. The DUP have been strutting around Westminster looking immensely pleased with themselves since the Bill was introduced, and their on-again off-again romance with the Conservatives is back on again.

But their endopsychic glue is so thin that it doesn’t take much to get under their skin, as the SDLP’s Claire Hanna showed when she pointed out that the protocol was the product of an earlier iteration of the DUP’s alliance with the Tories.

“I understand entirely the hurt and frustration of many ordinary unionists. They have been catastrophically misrepresented by the Democratic Unionist Party and by the prime minister,” she said.

“You lost a third of your seats,” Donaldson snarled, referring to May’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

“You’re going to lose the union,” Eastwood snapped back.

It was a bit of banter that went above the heads of most MPs as well as the Hansard reporters in the press gallery but there was a serious point behind the SDLP leader’s jibe. The DUP’s support for the government’s position on the protocol risks alienating many of the voters on whose support or acquiescence the union depends.

“I hope that the DUP will understand — I mean this in the best possible way — that hundreds of thousands of us in Northern Ireland who do not identify as unionists constitutionally compromise every single day; we live in a reality where the governance lines do not directly match up with our identity,” Hanna said after the interruption.

“We do that because it suits the majority of people, and because Northern Ireland is not a place where hard, sharp lines of sovereignty work, or where the winner can take all. It is a place where governance survives in the shades of grey.”

As she reminded MPs, a majority in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and most MLAs elected in May reject the protocol Bill. A new poll this week showed a clear majority of 55 per cent in Northern Ireland in favour of the protocol, and 38 per cent against — with support rising.

The government will press ahead with its Bill despite a plea from EU negotiator Maroš Šefčovič in London this week to “get Brexit done” by implementing the protocol. Germany’s new ambassador to the EU, Michael Clauss, told the EU-UK forum on Thursday that member states were unanimous in rejecting Britain’s demand that the protocol should be renegotiated. He said the German government under Olaf Scholz was more hardline on the issue than Angela Merkel’s had been and warned that British access to the Horizon research funding programme depended on the political climate being right.

“It’s a little bit on ice because of the present situation. We shouldn’t forget that breaching the Northern Ireland protocol, which is the centrepiece of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, is no small thing,” he said.

After the scratchiness of Monday’s debate on the protocol, MPs were in a more sombre mood on Wednesday when they debated the British government’s proposed amnesty for Troubles-related crimes. All Northern Ireland’s political parties oppose the Bill, which would end inquests and civil actions as well as offering immunity from prosecution to anyone who co-operates with a new, non-judicial information-gathering body.

The political purpose behind the legislation is to shield former British soldiers from prosecution for their actions in Northern Ireland. But the Conservative MPs who champion that cause, many of them former service personnel, acknowledged that the legislation will leave many in Northern Ireland without recourse to justice.

“I totally understand where the Northern Ireland parties are coming from, and this has been an educational journey for me as well. We have had some pretty feisty debates in this place, and I totally understand where those on all sides in the debate are coming from in Northern Ireland. The only problem I have is that, as politicians, we have to be pragmatic and we have to work in the space of what is physically possible,” Tory MP Johnny Mercer said.

He said it was unfair to pretend to victims that they had any hope of securing convictions, but Eastwood said they knew that already because they had been seeking justice for so long.

“But the very process of actually investigating, and having civil cases — that is what gets someone to the truth, and that is what the Bill will bar,” he said.