Boris Johnson’s Brexit Shambles Is Accelerating the Crisis of Northern Irish Unionism

Anyone who has been paying attention to events in Britain over the past number of years will have become accustomed to different sections of the political establishment using the North of Ireland as a pawn in their own political battles. Indeed, this has been the reality for more than a century.

True to form, Boris Johnson’s Tory administration has recently thrown two hand grenades into the middle of Northern Ireland’s political process, both designed to bolster the fortunes of a beleaguered prime minister. First came the announcement that the British government will replace plans for a blanket amnesty for Troubles-related offenses with conditional immunity for those who cooperate with truth-recovery investigations.

Government officials presented this move as achieving “balance” between the needs of victims and former combatants. However, it lacks support from the North’s main political parties and victims campaigners, who warn that it will “close down paths to justice” and “shield perpetrators.” Indeed, the main purpose of the tweaked legislation remains the same as the original: to whitewash imperial crimes and shore up support for Johnson’s government among old empire fanatics.

Similar motives lie behind the government’s latest ham-fisted intervention on Brexit. Having once trumpeted its own withdrawal agreement with the European Union as a “fantastic moment,” Johnson’s camp has now drafted plans to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland Protocol. Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary, claims the proposed bill will uphold the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement.

The majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members (MLAs) reject this claim. Most business groups and civil society organizations in the North also oppose such unilateral changes, as does the European Commission, which has launched infringement proceedings against what it describes as “clear breach of international law.”

What, then, has prompted the Tory government to move so quickly and recklessly on this issue? While plans for a confrontation with the EU have been in motion for some time, Johnson and his allies have fast-tracked their action in the context of internal party tensions and a no-confidence vote that has left the prime minister badly wounded.

Johnson’s erstwhile comrades in the European Research Group (ERG) have been quick to exploit this weakness, reasserting their demands for a harder Brexit in exchange for continued loyalty. Adding to this pressure is the DUP’s refusal to reenter the North’s power-sharing institutions until the protocol is scrapped or significantly revised, threatening a fresh constitutional crisis on Johnson’s watch.

It is worth recalling how we got to this point. At the outset, the DUP aligned itself with the right wing of the Conservative Party to push for the hardest of hard Brexits, rejecting all alternatives that came before the Westminster parliament. The main unionist party dismissed the North’s Remain vote of 56 percent, arguing — with some justification, it has to be said — that Brexit was an exercise in UK sovereignty, to be negotiated through the UK Parliament.

This line of argument suited the DUP while it remained the parliamentary kingmaker for Theresa May’s minority government. Yet it became more problematic after Boris Johnson won a landslide majority in December 2019. Just before becoming prime minister, Johnson told a DUP conference that “no British Conservative government could or should” support a Brexit deal that included a customs border in the Irish Sea. He went on to accept precisely that, destroying any illusions that the Tories regarded the DUP as a partner in a grand project to renew the United Kingdom.

The DUP initially gave the protocol a guarded welcome, with then party leader Arlene Foster describing it as a “gateway of opportunity.” However, this was unacceptable to the party’s hard-line wing and to sections of Ulster loyalist opinion, who see the new customs border as an existential threat to Northern Ireland’s position within the union. With polls offering a grim prognosis for the party’s electoral chances in this year’s assembly election, the DUP quickly set its face against the protocol after Foster was forced to step down, moving closer to the ERG position under its new leader, Jeffrey Donaldson.

All parties in the Six Counties recognize that there are teething problems with the protocol that need to be addressed through negotiation. It is also easy to see how some Unionists would regard the Irish Sea border as a symbolic threat to their British identity, notwithstanding a legal ruling that it does nothing to alter the North’s constitutional status.

However, the DUP has patently sought to manipulate these concerns for party-political self-interest, which has involved multiple intellectual contortions. DUP figures have routinely painted the protocol as a disaster for the regional economy, when every piece of available evidence shows that it is having a positive impact. While the long-term effects are less certain, new research suggests that the protocol will mitigate any decline in economic activity resulting from a Tory-led Brexit.

Even more curious is the DUP’s newfound affection for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which the party stridently opposed at the time and has not endorsed to this day. Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has developed a penchant for invoking the principles of consent and cross-community consensus enshrined in the agreement, arguing that decisions taken by Westminster have infringed the wishes of Unionists.

Not only does this appeal to the GFA go against the party’s 1998 position and its previous view that UK parliamentary sovereignty must take precedence in all matters Brexit. It also rings hollow in light of the DUP’s destructive approach to date, which has inflamed loyalist sentiment against the agreement and now dictates that power-sharing can only be restored on its terms. This comes after a widely anticipated setback for the DUP in the assembly election on May 7, when its vote dropped by nearly 7 percent and it lost its position as the North’s leading party to Sinn Féin.

The British government calculated that publication of its legislation to change the protocol would be enough to secure the DUP’s return to the Executive. However, Donaldson has indicated that his party will instead review devolution arrangements as the bill progresses through Parliament.

This holds out the possibility of a phased return to Stormont, beginning with the election of an assembly speaker, which the DUP has now blocked on two occasions. But it also contains the threat of a longer war of attrition that might paralyze the political process for a further five months, at which point the secretary of state would have to call an assembly election.

We can partly explain this hardening of the DUP’s rhetoric as a response to the experience of being thrown under the bus once already by the prime minister. Any repeat of that fiasco might fatally damage the DUP. It is also part of a strategy to halt and ultimately reverse the flow of votes on May 7, when DUP supporters defected in large numbers to the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Jim Allister, the TUV’s firebrand leader, continues to nip at the heels of his rival, insisting that the government’s bill falls short of removing the Irish Sea border.

The main problem with Donaldson’s strategy is that it hinges on Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver the changes he has promised. In normal times, a bill of the kind proposed could take months to pass through the House of Commons; even then, approval by the House of Lords is far from guaranteed. But these are not normal times, and neither is it a straightforward piece of legislation.

Jonathan Jones QC, the British government’s former chief legal officer, has described the government’s justification for the protocol bill as “hopeless.” The EU is certain to use every possible means to frustrate the government’s plans, up to and including the threat of a trade war.

On top of this, Johnson himself is hanging on by a thread following a humiliating double by-election loss, which prompted the immediate resignation of Tory Party cochair Oliver Dowden. Pressure is building on the government to do more to tackle the escalating cost-of-living crisis, which has already crippled thousands of households and sparked a resurgence in trade union activity.

With an increasing number of Tory MPs fearing for their seats in a future general election, the only thing keeping Johnson in office is the absence of a viable alternative. Should things change, Johnson’s cabinet could give way to one that has different ideas about how to manage the Brexit dispute.

These challenges mirrored those faced by the DUP at home. Donaldson’s boycott of Stormont means that the Executive has so far been unable to ratify its draft three-year budget or allocate some £430 million in cost-of-living measures. This is a source of growing frustration for the other main parties — Sinn Féin, Alliance, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) — who argue that that issues with the protocol could be “worked on in tandem” with a functioning Executive.

Moreover, the North is currently in the midst of its own strike wave. Housing, education, and local council workers have all been on strike over pay and conditions in recent months, while similar action by public transport workers was only narrowly averted following a last-minute deal. The largest teaching union, the NASUWT, is currently engaged in action short of strike action as part of a UK-wide dispute, which could escalate as economic conditions deteriorate.

In the private sector, Unite members are now into the third month of a protracted battle with their employer Caterpillar, and the union has indicated that ballots in other workplaces could follow. For its part, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has commenced what senior official Owen Reidy describes as a six-month campaign to “bring together workers, trade union members, community groups, and others to demand action on the cost-of-living crisis.”

Whether or not party strategists recognize it, the DUP is staking its future on a minority view shared only by the most militant elements within Unionist society. This should be self-evident from the feeble numbers that have attended anti-protocol rallies, not to mention the lack of popular support for loyalist paramilitary organizations and their bagmen.

The majority of Unionists do not subscribe to the apocalyptic narrative being propagated around the protocol or the supposedly immediate threat of a united Ireland. In surveys and at the ballot box, they have expressed a desire for stable government that delivers on health, the economy, and the cost of living. Should the DUP ignore this and persist with its single-minded agenda for the coming months, it could draw increasing opprobrium, culminating in a very damaging winter election.

This brings us to the more fundamental problems besetting Unionism, which are set to remain even with a satisfactory resolution to the protocol dispute. This May’s election result was not as dramatic as some have suggested but nonetheless represents a tipping point that has been reached after years of incremental social, political, and demographic change, with a nationalist party overtaking a unionist one for the first time since partition a century ago.

What has brought forward this tipping point is a toxic brand of rejectionist Unionism that has resisted the pace of change at every turn, frustrating the implementation of successive political agreements and modest social reforms. Party-political Unionism now finds itself in an electoral minority, fractured and incapable of articulating a positive vision of the future. The combined Unionist vote is in steady decline, highlighting the growing disconnect between the main parties and the priorities of those they claim to represent.

This sense of disillusionment is particularly acute in Unionist working-class areas, where material deprivation and the perception of having lost out to republicanism has generated increasing resentment toward the GFA. But the Unionist parties are also struggling to contend with the seemingly inexorable rise of the Alliance Party, which is offering a home to dissatisfied liberal Unionists and a growing constituency of self-described “Others.” In the recent election, Alliance simultaneously managed to increase its first-preference vote in Unionist areas while exchanging a huge volume of transfers with Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

Paradoxically, it is the new non-Unionist majority at Stormont that shows the clearest intent of “making Northern Ireland work.” This bloc is headed by Sinn Féin, whose ambitions to lead governments north and south have been strengthened by a recent poll giving the party more support than Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil put together.

Sinn Féin’s leadership team recognize that they must strike a balance between aspirations for Irish unity and delivering for people in the here and now, hence the promise of their northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, to be “a First Minister for all.” Indeed, the party’s long game of building toward reunification rests largely on the party’s ability to convince those beyond its core support base — liberal Unionists, soft nationalists, and “Others” — that it can govern in the interests of everyone.

For Unionists, the big strategic challenge is to embrace, move with, and positively influence changing political realities. Herein lies the best chance of safeguarding the Union in the medium term. It would be a mistake for the DUP and its fellow travelers to think that they can continue to dictate the terms of power-sharing or block progress on existing agreements in perpetuity.

Frustration with Stormont’s dysfunction is at an all-time high after several long bouts of suspension, and even those who support the continued existence of Northern Ireland will tolerate the politics of rejectionism for only so long before deciding that the system itself must be transcended. By the same token, London’s continued use of the North as a pawn in its political game is only likely to deepen mistrust of the British government among non-Unionists, bolstering the case for constitutional change.

Stormont may yet receive a stay of execution, if only because the cost-of-living crisis demands swift intervention and the British have no interest in direct rule. But it is hard not to conclude that the system of government instituted in 1998 is nearing its last-chance saloon. Meanwhile, the radical contingency of the current moment — a time of economic turmoil and class war, political flux, and growing divergence between England and the Celtic nations, raising the specters of Scottish and Welsh independence — means that more rapid and unexpected change is always possible.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo