Looks like the ‘Good Ship DUP’ has hit another political hurricane over the Protocol with the High Court judge ruling that the party’s boycott of the NSMC meetings was ‘an unlawful breach of the pledge of office’.
Mr Justice Scoffield made the declaration at Belfast High Court recently after judicial review proceedings were taken.
So now is the time for Unionism to box clever and implement Plan B – which is UUP leader Doug Beattie’s call for a cross-border body on the Protocol.
This should not be misinterpreted as Unionism admitting that it cannot defeat the Protocol, but merely a strategy to cause the Protocol to implode from within the island of Ireland.
Generally speaking, Unionism has been relying on the British Government to get the Protocol either scraped completely, or so drastically amended that it becomes economically meaningless.
However, by creating a special cross-border body on the Protocol, it shifts the debate significantly from a United Kingdom/European Union debate, to a platform of ‘good neighbours within the island of Ireland’ resolving a dispute which is to both jurisdictions’ benefit.
By removing the UK/EU approach, it put Unionism in a much stronger position as there is much suspicion the dreaded Protocol was introduced to punish Unionism – and the DUP in particular – for the way in which it behaved at Westminster during the DUP’s ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with then Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tory Government.
Put bluntly, had the DUP ‘played ball’ politically to properly prop up Mrs May’s Government and given its full blessing to her Withdrawal Agreement, would there have been a Protocol in the first place?
However, as commentators, we could spend an eternity indulging in the ‘blame game’ over Brexit and the implementation of the Protocol, when the real issue for Unionism is – how does Unionism realistically and practical confine the Protocol to the dustbin of history?
The Protocol is as much about saving the Irish Republic’s economy from another so-called Celtic Tiger collapse as it is about punishing the DUP for abusing its political position during the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement.
One point is clear – all right-thinking Unionist parties are firmly committed to ending the Protocol’s influence and impact. As usual, they differ on tactics and strategy.
The DUP wants the nuclear option – namely, for party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to pull his ministers out of the Stormont power-sharing Executive, collapse Stormont and possibly trigger a pre-Christmas election.
But would the Northern Ireland electorate punish the DUP for doing this in the middle of a pandemic? In reality, does the DUP really want to collapse the Assembly, or does it simply want to claim credit for any arrangement which the British Government creates either through its Command Paper or triggering Article 16?
As the DUP is the only one of the four Unionist parties (DUP, Ulster Unionists, Traditional Unionist Voice, and Progressive Unionist Party) to have Westminster MPs, does it have an inside track on Conservative Commons thinking on the content and implications of the Command Paper?
If this is the case, then DUP sabre-rattling about collapsing Stormont is merely a political bluff. For example, if the Command Paper effectively wrecks the influence of the Protocol, the DUP can crow that it was the Unionist party which forced the UK Government to act firmly on the Protocol and the EU for ‘backing down’ over the Protocol – double electoral whammy for the DUP!
In the meantime, Unionism now has the perfect opportunity to push the Protocol onto politically very thin ice by agreeing to both the establishment of a cross-border body on the Protocol, and indeed, attending those meetings with a pro-active agenda.
Forget the tramping the streets of Northern Ireland with anti-Protocol rallies. That tactic didn’t work in the Eighties with the Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No rallies against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Whether the cross-border Protocol body meets in Leinster House or Stormont is not the issue. What should be on the table is Unionism’s extensive wish list. This is also a golden opportunity for Unionism to sell itself as more than an economic spreadsheet for the Union.
Firstly, Leinster House needs to get it through its political skull that if the Protocol remains in place, the EU may not be as enthusiastic to ‘bail out’ the Republic in the event of another Celtic Tiger meltdown. With the UK out of the EU, there are no British billions to save the Republic.
With the Protocol gone, the border down the Irish Sea vanishes. We then return to the political and geographical land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The cross-border post Protocol body can then establishing workable and ‘good neighbourly’ trading arrangements which will benefit the entire island of Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is saved, and the Republic avoids a Celtic Tiger collapse now that it is both politically and geographically isolated from the remainder of the EU.
Politically, the Protocol also threatens the foundations of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Practically, what worked in 1998 is no longer working in 2021.
The cross-border post Protocol body can form the basis of a new Anglo-Irish Treaty – hopefully in the aftermath of the next planned Stormont poll in May 2022 – which sees an agreement between Stormont and the Dail based on the concept of ‘good neighbourliness’, or what can be realistically called – a shared island.
Top of Unionism’s wish list will be to persuade Southern Ireland to resume its place as a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, a cohesive collection of more than 50 national and regional parliaments across the globe.
This is not about the Republic ‘re-joining the British Empire’, but about how the Union can be developed so that all 32 counties of the island benefit from the concept of ‘A Union for All’.
What this new Anglo-Irish Treaty must ensure is that a scenario never again is allowed to develop on the island whereby the so-called hardmen of the paramilitaries take to the stage again in terms of the Troubles.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
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.