If there is one accusing political finger which can be pointed at the Unionist family, it is that it has failed to learn from its mistakes from the past.
Unionist commentators of my vintage will remember the cold and damp winter nights we spent in 1985 and 1986 covering the Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No rallies against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of that era in which the so-called Iron Lady, Tory PM Maggie Thatcher, stabbed Unionism in the back by giving the Republic of Ireland its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.
The then Ulster Unionist Party leader Jim Molyneaux regarded my late dad, Rev Dr Robert Coulter (a former UUP MLA for 13 years), as a political confidante. In late 1985, I recall Molyneaux sitting at the dining table in our then family home near Ballymena in County Antrim (dad was a UUP councillor on the then Ballymena Borough Council) virtually in tears as the reality struck home that his ‘special relationship’ with the PM lay in tatters.
Molyneaux genuinely believed that Maggie’s earlier ‘out, out, out’ speech in which she ruled out various options put forward by the Irish government meant that the Union was safe in her hands.
But as with any Tory administration in 10 Downing Street, there is always an underlying agenda when it comes to Northern Ireland.
Ever since 1974, Tory bosses had watched how Unionism always took to the streets and by force of numbers would wreck any attempt at power-sharing. The Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974 pulled down the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive between liberal Unionism and the moderate SDLP, then under the control of West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt, later Lord Fitt.
The no-warning bomb blitz in Dublin and Monaghan by the UVF in 1974, which murdered 30 people and left hundreds more injured and maimed, forced the Dublin government to withdraw any proposals on joint authority aimed at filling the political vacuum left by the collapse of Sunningdale.
Thatcher’s 1985 Hillsborough Accord was an attempt to get the Dublin government to ‘man up’ in terms of its responsibilities to prevent the 26 counties from being used as a launch pad for IRA and INLA attacks on Northern Ireland.
Maggie’s political carrot was to allow Dublin to set up the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast, effectively giving the Republic a role in running Northern Ireland. Maggie delivered for Dublin, but Dublin couldn’t clamp down on the IRA and INLA – and so the murders went on.
But what Maggie had accurately factored into the Anglo-Irish Agreement political equation was Unionism’s reaction – take to the streets and march no matter what the weather!
Although the official marching season had ended with the traditional Black Saturday demonstration in late August, out came the flutes and drums during that freezing November.
Unionism took the view, ‘we’ll do another 1974, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement will collapse! Parades will reign supreme again!’ It failed.
While Unionism loudly tramped the streets of Ulster, Dublin carefully tip-toed along the corridors of power in its Maryfield Secretariat. What did Unionism achieve? Nothing – it lost two Unionist MPs’ seats in the protest Westminster by-elections of 1986 and the Commons General Election of 1987.
What Unionism should have done in 1985 was to open a Unionist Embassy in Leinster House and negotiated away the Anglo-Irish Agreement. If there’s one thing Dublin hates and fears, its Unionists interfering in Southern Irish affairs.
And so to 2022 and the Unionist campaign against the Protocol. Apart from allowing Unionists and loyalists to ‘let off steam’ politically – even if that means heckling some Unionist elected representatives – what have these rallies achieved?
While Unionism pontificates, the Protocol remains in place. As with Sunningdale in 1974, so with the Protocol in 2022 – Unionism has no workable alternative.
Is the Protocol the Tories’ punishment on Unionism for failing to accept former PM Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement when the DUP was part of a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the Conservative Party to keep her government in power?
Is the Protocol the European Union’s punishment on the United Kingdom for overall voting for Brexit, even though Northern Ireland as a region voted ‘remain’?
Is the Protocol a warning to other EU member states thinking of quitting the EU – ‘look what we did to the Brits; this is your punishment if you don’t control your euroskeptic movements!’
The anti-Protocol rallies have now deteriorated into election campaign events for the DUP and TUV. Indeed, if its marches that Unionism wants, the traditional marching season begins shortly with the Easter parades by the Loyal Orders.
With Unionism now gripped by election fever, what is really needed is a skilled United Unionist negotiating team to go directly to Brussels and re-negotiate as many parts of the Protocol so that it, in practice, becomes a meaningless piece of paper.
Then again, will there ever be any such thing as Unionist unity? For once, Unionism will have to take seriously the concept of ‘jaw, jaw’. Put bluntly, Unionism cannot heckle the Protocol away.
Just as Unionism played a key talking role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement into existence in 1998, it must talk the Protocol out of existence post-election in 2022.
What Unionism needs are political representatives who are skilled in negotiations, not screaming into microphones. Unionism needs workable alternatives to the Protocol, not empty electioneering rhetoric.
Endless marching leaves you with blisters; endless heckling leaves you with hoarseness. But talking constructively and maturely with sensible, workable solutions will leave the Protocol politically castrated. Can Unionism deliver the latter?
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.