Any hint of Government backsliding on the Protocol poses a real risk to the future of power sharing and the peace we cherish
By Jamie Bryson
The comments by Mr Burns display a remarkable split-personality on the part of the Government. On their case (rightly as it happens) the NI Protocol Bill- and its deviation from the terms of that pernicious Union-busting treaty encapsulating the Protocol- is necessary because in the absence of rectifying the issue, there will be both no power sharing in Northern Ireland and a risk to the fragile peace.
And yet now we have Conor Burns informing unionists that our political representatives should return to Government in advance of the issue being resolved (despite receiving a huge mandate to stay out of power sharing until the Protocol is removed). Does he not grasp the absurdity of his utterances?
If unionism were to restore power sharing, without the Protocol being removed, then the very necessity for bringing the NI Protocol Bill would be vanquished.
It is worth pointing out that the NI Protocol Bill, in of itself, is not enough to restore power sharing. It must be accompanied by the necessary (and urgent) commencement orders, and acceptable regulations to replace that which becomes excluded provision once the relevant provisions are commenced.
Why would any unionist, having moved the Government to the point of accepting the necessity to legislate- based largely on the fact if they do not, then there will be no power sharing- then remove that leverage that creates that necessity by restoring power sharing whilst the Union-subjugating Protocol remains?
Only two credible possibilities arise. The first is that Conor Burns was simply on a PR exercise, trying to woo international opinion and, in an effort to placate the pro EU BBC, got a bit muddled in his interview on Good Morning Ulster. I must say, whilst possible, it does seem a bit of a stretch to think as accomplished a public performer as Conor Burns would fall into error in such a manner.
The second is that the bad aroma arising from Mr Burns’ comments is in fact the stench of appeasement in the air, and the Government are quietly trying to lure unionists back into restoring power sharing, at which point the Government can begin to backslide on their clear promises and commitments.
Whichever way you look at it, the best insurance policy for unionism is to continue to leverage power sharing against the Protocol, using it as a wedge to drive out that Union-subjugation monstrosity from our domestic law.
It is worth noting that this isn’t an extremist view. The unionist electorate had a choice; the UUP stood on a manifesto of wanting to placate the EU, and made clear they would operate power-sharing no matter what. The DUP and TUV stood on the simple message: Power Sharing or the Protocol. The vast majority (over a quarter of a million) of the unionist electorate endorsed this message, and rejected the UUP’s appeasement position (which included a willingness to forsake the Acts of Union).
In polls since, the unionist electorate’s position has in fact been shown to be hardening even more, with massive unionist support for the stance of anti-Protocol unionism.
Put simply, the DUP have a mandate from the unionist people- based on their express promise that there would be no power sharing until their seven key tests were met- and any backsliding on that sacred contract with the unionist/loyalist people would be a historical betrayal, far beyond even the monumental error in 1998.
In equal terms, the political action of the DUP has provided a peaceful outlet for the huge anger and resentment bubbling within loyalism. Those tensions remain just beneath the surface, and many have worked- and are working- tirelessly to ensure they do not once again explode.
That positive and vital work, in maintaining peace and urging faith in political action, could easily be undermined by so much as a hint of backsliding on the promises made to strip out the Protocol’s core provisions and restore the Acts of Union. That is something we all desperately want to avoid. The continued viability of the peace we all cherish would be seriously endangered should loyalism once again feel betrayed and cut adrift in favour of placating nationalism and the hostile Irish Government.
It is worth remembering that the continued existence of the Protocol is a living reminder of how the threats of IRA terrorism and “civil disobedience…at a minimum” by nationalists and the Irish Government were rewarded, to the detriment of the Union.
In future UK Government Ministers should appreciate the tinderbox that exists in unionist and loyalist communities- caused by the imposition of the Union-subjugating, violence-rewarding Protocol, and therefore recognise that utterances which create the impression that appeasement is the order of the day can have profound political and societal consequences.
There is only one ‘landing zone’. The complete removal of the Protocol. That means stripping out all its provisions and doing so in a manner which satisfies the key tests of the DUP- which have been endorsed by the unionist electorate.
The first of those key tests: restore the Acts of Union. Do that, and power sharing can be considered. Do it not, then power sharing is finished, and so is the Belfast Agreement.