It’s not often Northern Ireland’s political parties become united on an issue, but the Tory Westminster Government’s proposals to ‘draw a line in the sand’ under the legacy of the Irish Troubles has Unionists, republicans and centrists all singing from the same political hymn sheet.
Even the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which heralded the current Irish peace process, could not achieve the same degree of political unity among parties north and south of the Irish border.
But that unity could come at a price as victims’ campaigners, politicians and families of loved ones lost in the Troubles over more than 30 years have a harsh decision to make in the coming months - overturn the British Government’s decision to have a statute of limitations on legacy and continue the campaigns for truth and justice, or overturn the European Union’s determination to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Can it be a case that Irish political parties want ‘to have their cake and eat it’? Namely, keep the legacy investigations on going, and get the Protocol scrapped, or at the very least, drastically amend the Protocol so that the so-called border in the Irish Sea vanishes.
The British Government may have to adopt a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to both legacy and the Protocol. Opinion over the Protocol, for example, is radically divided across the island of Ireland.
The Southern administration in Dublin needs it to protect the Irish Republic’s economy as the Republic is still an integral member of the European Union.
The vast majority of Unionists want the Protocol axed as they are convinced it severely dilutes Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom and places the six counties on a slippery slope to eventual Irish Unity.
The ‘Leave the EU’ lobby of current Brexiteers view the Protocol as not merely a device to protect the Irish Republic, which as an EU member, is now both geographically and economically isolated from the rest of the EU, but also to financially punish the UK for daring to leave the EU in the first place.
The Northern Ireland Protocol might also serve as a clear warning to other EU member states, especially Poland and Hungary, about what could happen if they dare to consider their own form of Brexit.
Mix this crisis with the implications for national security of details being made public about the intelligence war against terrorism in Ireland during the conflict.
Security forces veterans and serving personnel will be happy there will be no more potential prosecutions or investigations, and terrorists will not have to face legal justice for unsolved killings - but this will not placate the families of loved ones lost, ranging from those who simply want to know why their loved ones died, to those who want full-blown legal justice in the courts.
The real problem facing the British Government is the impact of the so-called ‘dirty war’, namely how the intelligence community infiltrated the terror gangs.
Put bluntly, how many agents, spies and informers did the various arms of the intelligence community have planted, not just in terrorist groups, but in political parties? If the legacy issue is allowed to continue, could investigations deteriorate into a ‘spook hunt’, or could we see more Westminster MPs using Parliamentary privilege to name alleged informers or agents?
The more damaging question would be - how many people did the intelligence community allegedly allow to be murdered or maimed simply to protect the identity of their agents?
How many terrorist attacks could have been prevented if information gained from agents had been acted upon rather than simply filed to protect identities of those agents?
Likewise, the political ‘trade-off’ if the British Government can get the Northern Ireland parties to let legacy remain in the past in terms of investigations, is to confine the Protocol to the dustbin of history.
That would certainly placate Unionism in Northern Ireland and would allow the Johnston Government to give a further ‘two-fingered salute’ to the EU.
As for the Dublin government, Westminster could remind it that if the Southern Irish so-called Celtic Tiger economy collapsed again under the pressure of the pandemic, there is no British bailout billions to help the Republic when the UK was in the EU. Suddenly, the impossible becomes the possible politically - Irexit!
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.