By Moore Holmes
“This is about one thing, and one thing only – and that’s the Union.”
Those were the emphatic first words spoken at the East Belfast Constitutional Club a little over two years ago.
The Protocol had only come to light a few days beforehand and the East Belfast meeting was organised in response. Hundreds of Loyalists packed into the middle floor of the Newtownards Road bar in what was described as an “unprecedented show of unity.” Union and Ulster flags draped along the inner ‘Con Club’ walls as Loyalists from Belfast and beyond voiced their anger at what was appropriately named the “Betrayal Act.”
Looking back over the past two years since that “unprecedented” gathering in East Belfast, some may be tempted to mistakenly conclude that the Loyalist campaign which succeeded it has thus far all been in vain.
Although the Protocol’s problems are still in play, and notwithstanding the Unionist tendency to focus on what has been lost while often ignoring and/or downplaying its achievements, the Loyalist campaign over the past two years has been far from futile.
Think back to where we were at the beginning of last year and one cannot help but notice the change that has occurred – even if it stops short of the Protocol’s demise, for now.
At the start of last year, both the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State were telling us that the Irish Sea Border did not even exist. The Government sought to hide the Irish Sea Border in plain sight by pushing through an absurd take on the Protocol in the hope that some Unionists and Loyalists would eventually come around to it.
Now look where we are. Rather than Loyalists moving toward the Government’s position, the Government have moved closer to the Loyalist position.
In a matter of months, the same Prime Minister had unilaterally extended various grace periods on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, and hovered his hand over the Protocol’s safeguard mechanism – Article 16. A clause might I add, that is only eligible if parts of the Protocol cause serious economic or societal difficulties, which they demonstrably do.
The European Union have also changed their tune. Over the course of last year the EU consistently matched UK Protocol complaints with intransigence. For months they repeatedly demanded the Protocol be implemented in full and that no changes could be acceptable.
Then, all of a sudden, the EU succumb to political demand and displayed a newfound flexibility on the Protocol – one they previously would not dare to contemplate.
In October 2021, they tabled four non-papers offering “bespoke arrangements” on a selection of the Protocol’s problems pertaining to medicines, customs, SPS/PS, and engagement with Northern Ireland stakeholders.
Despite EU fanatics applauding the move, none of the EU’s proposals came anywhere close to addressing fundamental problems at the nucleus of the Protocol. Nothing was offered regarding the primacy of the European Court of Justice or on how the Protocol is inconsistent with the Belfast Agreement. Even the proposals on medicines and customs fell woefully short.
However, the lesson of it all is, what the EU claim to be immutable, when pushed, can very quickly become negotiable. Something the UK Government ought to keep in mind if they are serious about restoring Northern Ireland’s full place in the United Kingdom.
There has also been a stronger stance taken domestically on the Protocol as well. Who can forget when the then DUP Leader Arlene Foster spoke of seizing the Protocol’s opportunities at the beginning of the year? Or, when the now DUP Leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said that customs checks do not affect the constitutional status of a country?
Both remarks show how Unionist leaders have often been found lagging behind their electorate when it comes to the Protocol. Without pressure and protests from grassroots Loyalism, who knows what line the DUP would have settled on? And if Loyalist objections diminish, who knows what direction the DUP may yet still take?
Nonetheless, as political Unionism has steadily come to terms with just how bad the Protocol really is, it is unsurprising therefore that Unionist politicians have turned the volume down on Protocol opportunities, and significantly turned the volume up on the Protocol’s constitutional consequences.
Although, paradoxically, the DUP still oversee the implementation of the very Irish Sea Border they maintain is illegal, they have withdrawn from the majority of North-South Ministerial meetings in protest against the Protocol and now look set, as a consequence of UVPS’s legal action, to cease conducting any of the remaining checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
On the whole, since the Protocol came into effect, Loyalist activism, among other things, has helped manoeuvre the entire political landscape toward viewing the Irish Sea Border less as a solution and more of a problem.
Even the most ardent of Protocol enthusiasts have retreated from their position. The Alliance Party and SDLP used to demand the “rigorous implementation” of the Protocol, but now they want to see pragmatic solutions to something they previously labelled as “the best of both worlds.”
In the space of a year, everyone seems to be singing a different note on the Protocol, except of course, the Loyalist community.
Since the moment it emerged, Loyalists have not wavered in their opposition to the Protocol. Even amidst a global health emergency, and contrary to what political opponents desperately try to discredit, Loyalists have once again demonstrated an ability to mobilise and form a sustained campaign against the Irish Sea Border – which, as shown above, has had some success.
Those successes do not belong to Loyalists alone of course. Yet it must be said, the localised protests that have taken place right throughout Northern Ireland, whether they were in Moygashel or Markethill, North Belfast or Newtownards, have each in their own way contributed to the collective effort that has ultimately driven the anti-Protocol agenda right to the heart of the British Government.
All the more reason therefore that Loyalists should press on with their peaceful demonstrations, reorganise, and reconvene their protest campaign instead of putting it on pause, and hoping that others will deliver. What sense would it make to push the Protocol all the way up the hill, if only, for at the critical moment to let it roll back down again?
A resumption of protesting could arguably not come at a more important time, especially given that those who were ready to take substantial action against the Protocol now appear to be backtracking – once again.
The British Government look to have retreated from the prospect of Article 16, for now, and although Liz Truss continues to talk tough, the Government fall short of taking the necessary action.
The DUP’s threat to withdraw from Stormont by November of last year was also proven to be more bark than bite. It is yet another sign that the party that prefers to wait and see what the Tories can put on the table, instead of trying to force the British Government’s hand with strong political action.
As each DUP threat fails to materialise, their rhetoric will increasingly be interpreted as an electoral tactic to recover lost voters that have strayed toward the TUV, more than anything else.
Perhaps a rejuvenated effort from grassroots Loyalism and wider Unionism could help encourage greater political action? Maybe a more centralised demonstration at Northern Ireland’s Ports, endorsed and attended by the Orange Order and political Unionism as a whole could communicate the urgency with which the Protocol needs addressing?
A protest is set to take place in Markethill on February 18th. Could that demonstration launch a new spell of anti-Protocol campaigning?
Whatever lies ahead, it must not be forgotten that the Protocol is the greatest, most consequential challenge Unionism has ever faced in protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom – and it is one that Unionism can and must overcome.
Change is achievable, but the past two years have shown that it does not happen by chance; change must be caused. Instead of waiting for change to happen, Unionism should seize the initiative, be bold, and create the necessary conditions for change to take place. If that means refusing to implement checks, resigning Ministers, or collapsing Stormont – then so be it.
All that can be done to thwart the Protocol, must be done. Just like it was said in East Belfast two years ago, “this is about one thing and one thing only – and that’s the Union.”