What’s next for political unionism?

Opinion: will the politics of protest and anger over the Northern Ireland protocol give way…

Opinion: will the politics of protest and anger over the Northern Ireland protocol give way to a spirit of pragmatism?

By Darren Litter, Queen’s University Belfast

“Unionism needs to say what it’s for, wants to achieve and deliver, not the diet of: we are against/never/ opposed to/dislike. The narrative of betrayal needs to end; negatives don’t attract.” These are not the words of the EU, the Irish government, or Sinn Féin; but Conservative Party MP, Simon Hoare. As Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, Hoare has been only too generous in platforming various unionist and loyalist voices.

Since campaigning for, and championing the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the EU, political unionism has reverted more and more to the protest force that so marginalised it during the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement period. It is enduring what Professor Cathal McCall has called a “long dark night of the Ulster British soul”; feeling around in that darkness for a way out of the imperfect consequences of the original sin of Brexit, something both John Major and Tony Blair warned would grievously impact the Northern Ireland peace process.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime, Prof. Pete Shirlow, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool on new DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson

The darkness has essentially devoured the Democratic Unionist Party, brought scenes of street unrest not seen in years and resulted in the issuing of a warning by the Loyalist Communities Council that the Irish government is “no longer welcome in Northern Ireland”. With Lord Frost setting the highly charged deadline of July 12th for resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol – something the UK’s Good Friday Agreement negotiator, Jonathan Powell, deems “extraordinarily dangerous and irresponsible” – there is the very real prospect of a long hot summer in Northern Ireland.

Loyalism and considerable elements of unionism are fervently set against the Protocol. This has been further emboldened by a UK government – whether for the purposes of negotiation leverage, or because it too seeks the Protocol’s failure – that has at least tacitly legitimised their absolutist position. The result is that what may be good for the UK government, such as a supposedly imminent agreement on medicine flow and an agreed extension of the grace period on chilled meats, will be insufficient for reducing the totemic importance that this issue has taken on for loyalism.

The existence of this charged atmosphere is a deeply concerning reality because, as former senior official at the Northern Ireland Office Chris Maccabe put it to me, “It [serious violence on the island of Ireland] has started off with a few puffs of smoke and a few flying rocks on every occasion – right back to 1798 really”.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, RTÉ Northern Editor Vincent Kearney reports on the April 2021 violence in Belfast

In this respect, there is a need for the UK government, with the Irish government sponsoring any reasonable technical adjustments, to galvanize the centre in Northern Ireland by highlighting what this same ex-official describes as the “win-win” aspects of the Protocol. The Protocol prevents a border on the island of Ireland – the alternative to which “there’s no way” could have been countenanced, according to Maccabe – and reflects the overlooked fact that 56% of the public support Northern Ireland’s continued participation in the Single Market.

It is also worth noting, as Professor Katy Hayward points out, that Article 1 of the Protocol, whatever about its symbolic implications, explicitly affirms NI’s existing constitutional status. But if that is not enough to assuage loyalist concerns, it is also clear from polling that only 30% of NI support Irish unity in an immediate sense and most only see it becoming possible in 25-30 years.

Fears regarding the Irish government are completely misplaced. Current Taoiseach Micheál Martin is entirely in touch with unionist sensibilities and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, far from the pantomime villain portrayed, is merely speaking aspirationally about the future and within the parameters of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

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From RTÉ One’s Claire Byrne Live, what would a united Ireland look like if it came to pass?

To go back to Simon Hoare’s counsel, unionism and loyalism ought to seriously contemplate the potential benefits of the Protocol set out not by nationalism, the Irish government, or the EU, but by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Invest NI and NI business. The Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs recently identified a competitive advantage for local fisheries, while Invest NI have reported increased foreign direct investment (FDI) inquiries, something the Department for Economy is now formally carrying out work on.

FDI has been primary basis for Ireland’s record-breaking economic success, and this is not the only element of the Irish example that unionism/loyalism can sensibly draw from. Much of Ireland’s FDI model is based in its EU membership. But like certain sections of NI today, not everybody was comfortable with the effects the then European Economic Community (EEC) would have on the Irish’s state long fought for sovereignty. In the end, Ireland was prepared to accept the technical loss of sovereignty involved in joining a union of states, as the economic opportunities involved allowed it to strengthen the tangibility of its statehood.

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From RTÉ’s Brexit Republic podcast, RTÉ Europe Editor Tony Connelly and Deputy Foreign Editor Colm Ó Mongáin look at the latest comings and goings over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Warning: contains sausages

This is an option available to unionism/loyalism: forego traditional conceptions of sovereignty and place Northern Ireland more at the heart of the UK by making it an economic asset. This would effectively rescind the 1993 Downing Street Declaration’s notion of “no selfish strategic or economic interest” being at play. The role of dynamic sovereignty was perfectly understood by the late loyalist leader, David Ervine. He assessed that there would not be a united Ireland due to the impact deepening European integration would have on nationalism’s ability to make a compelling case for it.

But unionism/loyalism seems set to row behind “whoever brings out the biggest Union Jack”, to quote Robert Ramsay, key aide to the last Northern Ireland Prime Minister. The likelihood is the July marching season and subsequent events are designed to amplify the ‘threat’ of NI rather than any positive attributes.

This may play well with short-term unionist sentiment, but it will be a source of profound disturbance within these Isles more broadly (54% of Britons say that they wouldn’t care if NI left the UK), and will sharpen the attitudes of an EU that does not take kindly to being pushed. The ground is not moving beneath unionism/loyalism as it currently fears, but it may well do in time, if a spirit of pragmatism does not again subsume the politics of protest.

Darren Litter is a PhD Candidate in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ