Divisions between Unionism and Loyalism over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol have surfaced in a manner not witnessed since the fallout of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 when the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community realigned into the Yes and No camps.
Liberals within the pro-Union community see the Protocol as an opportunity to develop cross-border trade in a post-Brexit Ireland given that Northern Ireland voted ‘Remain’ in the 2016 European Union membership referendum.
Loyalists remain concerned the Protocol is yet another sneaky step towards Irish unity, this time by developing a business route. The hardline language coming from some in the Loyalist community has not been heard since the Ulster Says No mobilisation against the then Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.
As a democrat, I am totally convinced that political Unionism needs to come up with an alternative to the current Protocol otherwise it will lose the initiative to militant and violent Loyalism - and that could see the peace process established in 1998 completely unravel.
Likewise, Unionism must not tumble into the pitfalls of 1974 and 1985. In 1974, after the Ulster Workers’ Council strike ‘successfully’ led to the collapse of the power-sharing Sunningdale Executive between liberal Unionism and the SDLP, mainstream Right-wing Unionism was unable to produce a workable alternative.
That was clearly demonstrated in the failure of the Northern Ireland Convention. Similarly, in 1985, while the PUL community tramped the damp and cold streets of Northern Ireland with its Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No campaigns, the Dublin administration made giant political strides towards controlling the Province using the lever of the Maryfield Secretariat.
Long-term, the best way for Unionism to undo the economic effects of the Protocol on Northern Ireland is for the Unionist parties to organise and contest elections in Southern Ireland. Even half a dozen Irish Unionist Party TDs could help Fianna Fail or Fine Gael form a stable coalition government in Leinster House - and also keep Sinn Fein out of government.
But that is a long-term strategy. It does not solve the core issue - how to neutralise the immediate effects of the Protocol in the coming months; certainly before the Unionist parties have to face the electorate in the next planned Assembly poll in May 2022.
Whether Unionism campaigns to re-negotiate, amend or scrap the Protocol, another core issue is to ensure that it has a workable alternative in place which boosts the Province’s economy.
Given that Northern Ireland voted ‘Remain’ in 2016 and the so-called Alliance ‘bounce’ in three elections in past years, the Unionist parties must ensure their alternative to the current Protocol does not damage the Ulster economy.
The last thing which Unionism needs in the teeth of an election is the reality of an economic collapse similar to the one which happened in the Irish Republic when the once buoyant Celtic Tiger required millions of euros as part of an EU bailout.
Put bluntly, if the Protocol causes the Ulster economy to go financially ‘pear-shaped’, there will be no EU millions - unless Dublin can convince Brussels to regard the Six Counties as some kind of unofficial eurozone. That would be akin to a united Ireland in all but name only.
Does Unionism have the influence or clout to convince the Johnston Government at Westminster with its considerable Conservative majority to trigger Article 16 and begin the political process of getting the Protocol confined to the dustbin of history?
Then again, supporters of the Protocol have been quick to point out that the current BoJo Tory Government is yet another example of a government Conservative party throwing Unionism in Ulster ‘under the bus’ politically.
With a Westminster Government facing a resurgent Scottish National Party and calls for independence north of the English border, will the English Tories - especially those MPs in the Shires - really be concerned with the economic yapping of Northern Ireland politicians?
For the BoJo Government, the peace process is still working, so why upset the apple cart by tinkering with the Protocol - provided that Protocol is not affecting the economy of England and Wales.
Here’s the key question for political Unionism - how does it convince Boris Johnston and his contingent of ‘Leave’ MPs that the Protocol is ‘bad for business’ in mainland Britain? Somehow, in spite of the significant ‘Remain’ vote in Northern Ireland, the Unionist parties - and especially the DUP - have got to convince Boris Johnston that even amending the Protocol is akin to giving Brussels another political ‘bloody nose’.
The huge gamble for the Unionist parties is simple - what happens if the Protocol actually starts to boost the Northern Ireland economy? What happens if the Protocol leads to significant inward investment and job creation in Ulster?
Will the Unionist parties be forced into an embarrassing economic U-turn if the Protocol begins to deliver positive results for the Northern Ireland economy?
Militant Loyalism is already convinced the DUP has been ‘sold a pup’ over the Protocol and that it represents Irish unity via the back door. The dilemma remains - if the Protocol delivers a vibrant all-island economy, including Northern Ireland, will the Unionist parties pour cold water on that financial regeneration?
Put bluntly, would Unionism rather have economic growth as part of an all-island economy, or an austerity-riddled Northern Ireland simply to dump the Protocol?
Whatever strategy is adopted, the Unionist parties’ spin doctors will be burning plenty of midnight oil to come up with a workable solution that ‘Protocol or no Protocol, both the Union and the Ulster economy are not just safe, but growing.
All this needs to be completed by May 2022, otherwise Unionism must face the politically unpalatable medicine that a Sinn Fein/Alliance Party dominated Stormont Executive beckons.
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