Stability in Northern Ireland is at risk. Unionists, the community who want the six counties to remain part of the UK, are wounded. A visitor need not travel far to spot graffiti attacking the “Irish Sea border” and the “protocol” — the part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU that governs the region’s post-Brexit trade with Great Britain.
The protocol was an ineluctable result of the “hard” Brexit Boris Johnson negotiated, something prominent unionists once supported. Checks and regulations on goods entering Northern Ireland were needed to avoid a destabilising land border with the south of the island.
Set aside, for now, who is to blame: the fact of unionist discontent matters for maintaining the peace. Even moderate unionists have anxieties about their shared home becoming less British if UK businesses stop serving it fully. But the needs of unionism should be differentiated from those of its political leaders.
At this month’s elections, the largest unionist party ran an incendiary campaign. The Democratic Unionist party pledged — irresponsibly — that it would refuse to enter government unless the protocol were dropped. Since forming an executive requires buy-in from the lead unionist party and the lead party of “nationalism”, as those who would prefer Northern Ireland be part of Ireland are known, this means no government.
Johnson’s stated slogan for this week, at least, is “We don’t want to nix it, we want to fix it” — an implicit rebuke to the DUP’s demand on the protocol and to its hard Brexiter allies in the Conservative party in London who view Northern Ireland as a place in which to show off their commitment to maximum “sovereignty”. The protocol contains processes for negotiating its own implementation. The UK should stick with them, and focus narrowly on the border. Some of London’s bugbears, like state aid rules, need to be put to one side.
There is a landing zone for a deal to make the sea border less visible. For example, the EU last autumn offered “easements” to cut paperwork and checks — a start. Brussels will need to show more flexibility, but there are solutions to many of the other issues that annoy unionists. This will take time — some potential solutions rely on new data-sharing systems, for example. Taking time will also require trust.
So it is regrettable that the UK government has threatened (again) to override parts of the agreement it does not like. Doing so could provoke a trade war — one Johnson cannot win and which would further destabilise the island of Ireland. It would be far better for the UK to draw closer to the EU. It is a shame that alignment between the UK and EU on food and agriculture appears out of bounds: that would mean fewer checks were needed.
The kind of careful, trust-building approach needed would be a change from Johnson’s normal bluffing. It should be paired, too, with some uncharacteristic truth-telling. The prime minister needs to make clear to the DUP that they have lost. A forced retreat would be humiliating. But the party should be made to understand it has nothing to gain from its continued veto on a government.
As some wilier unionists have quietly noted, the protocol could become a selling point for membership of the UK: it gives Northern Ireland privileged access to both British and EU markets. But the DUP’s presentation of it as a disaster contributes to the sense that Northern Ireland is ungovernable and cannot last.
So too does its refusal to support a government. Everyone in the region needs a working executive. But no one needs it more than unionists. Nothing will build support for the end of a British-run Northern Ireland faster than yet another spell without leadership.