Veteran Derry unionist Terry Wright: Pro-Remain unionists are being converted into Brexiteers by the NI Protocol
In referring with regularity to the fact that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland did not vote in favour of Brexit, the European Union, including the Republic of Ireland, never seems to have understood that whilst an estimated 35 per cent of the pro-Union constituency in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, they did not vote to be treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom or, excluded as a contrived special case within a final deal.
No one is comfortable at being ignored especially when the threat of violence weighed so heavily in shaping negotiating positions within the European Union.
Those who acquiesce to violence or the threat of it, risk becoming its servants and sending out a message that violence and the threat of violence are a major influence at the negotiating table even where the euphemism of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, which stands compromised by the NI Protocol and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), is voiced.
In the circumstances that pertain, whilst it is difficult to quantify at this stage, there is evidence in communities, that individuals who were pro-Remain, are being converted into Brexiteers.
The same applies to the NI Protocol which many, hitherto, were prepared to see given a chance as a potential game-changer for an economy which is showing signs of growth after 40 years of political and economic warfare.
If common sense prevails, the over-regulated and disruptive aspects of the Protocol are amended with equality and parity of esteem for the pro-Union population restored, the situation can be redeemed.
The divergence and disruption which has emerged thus far, with a worsening of this likely at the end of the grace periods, is proving a bridge too far.
Limited inclusion in the United Kingdom Internal Market, parcels arriving from London with a customs declaration form attached, personal purchases from Great Britain held by customs due to gaps in paperwork, companies now making goods unavailable to the Northern Ireland market producing a deficit in market choice and competition, exposure to artificially produced monopolies and higher prices; and all of this likely to worsen, stoke the fire.
These, with others, are the reasons for the developing situation. Anger, fear and frustration are the outward expression of entirely rational views across the pro-Union constituency which inform the growing unease beyond slogans on walls and often ill-considered stances adopted by political parties who could well be setting themselves up to fail.
The over-optimistic promises of the Prime Minister have done little to assuage doubts and distrust.
Now, through the evidence of Denis McMahon, permanent secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), comes a report that the Northern Ireland Protocol is requiring the region to carry out more documentary checks than any European member state; that the “huge” levels of bureaucracy are being witnessed during grace periods, when red tape necessitated by the protocol is limited.
Further, it is becoming clear that medicines and healthcare in Northern Ireland will no longer be subject to United Kingdom approval, but European Union approval. Given the slow rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in the European Union, the flawed decision-making over triggering Article16 and the limited use of the Oxford vaccine, the hands of a Health Minister will be handcuffed by European Union dithering and bureaucratic delays.
It still has not ratified the TCA. How long does it take to translate into 27 languages; too long it seems? The health of everyone will be at risk by a decision-making process wherein Northern Ireland has no role and which is clearly not fit for purpose when smart decisions need to be taken.
The suggestion that the Republic of Ireland will act as a voice for Northern Ireland looks increasingly problematic in light of the fact that thus far, whenever problems emerge, the default position is to side with European Union decision-makers and political representatives are quick to the airwaves to voice their allegiance to the European Union party line.
Northern Ireland has friends in Dublin but when it comes to EU matters it is not the priority and collateral damage, economic and political, ensues.
The argument that Brexit is to blame is wearing thin. All sides had a range of choices to make. The Protocol was not the only option. The intransigence of the EU and the claim that the priority was to protect the GFA looks increasingly weak. NI is being treated as anything other than a special case. The border presents as just a useful tool as NI is transformed into a regulatory and constitutional fiefdom by the EU.
The EU needs to face up to the truth that the GFA is not protected. It is being undermined in spirit and context.
Nationalist parties and the Alliance party who have driven this agenda, will not agree but the balance of the principle of consent has shifted significantly.
Maybe it was always part of the plan with Brexit too good an opportunity to miss.
The equality and parity of esteem which was painfully choreographed has tilted towards North-South within all of the strands in terms of unfettered trade, regulatory adherence, Brussels decision-making and divergence.
It cannot be otherwise with new inflexible regulatory barriers to trade East-West and the consequences of a shift in the position of the border.
Linkage, East-West, is weakened and this is a strong feeling within the pro-Union community and, whilst it is part of a deal signed off by parliament, in its current form, it does not enjoy the support of the political unionist constituency and is producing uncertainty.
This is not the GFA that many signed up to in 1998. The principle of consent may remain in the Agreement but the political terrain has altered in regard to what voters may be asked to give their consent to in terms of divergence, decision-making and laws. The Protocol has changed the political environment.
There are unionists, probably now a minority, who recognised the necessity for a customised – no pun intended – arrangement for Northern Ireland with possible gains to be explored in terms of economic growth and prosperity through access to the UK, global markets, trade deals and the Single Market but the over-developed sense of risk within the EU as well as other regulations like origins of source are sucking potential like air leaking from a balloon. Regrettably political leadership within unionism which seemed to also recognise possibilities has leaked with it and remaining support lies within those connected to business or unaligned pro-union groups. But this is not unqualified support and will wane if the EU does not exhibit greater flexibility on a range of areas like groupage, personal purchases, trusted traders, digitalisation, checks in transit, supply chains and goods at risk. The spaghetti regulation needs to be reduced in volume and untangled.
The NI Protocol should be an engine for efficiency, effectiveness and enterprise, not to stifle economic development already in place. Political unionism needs to also re-consider its stance but it is being given little room for manoeuvre.
Northern Ireland is either a special case or it is not; this is not a one-way street. The NI Protocol does not exist in a political vacuum and has ramifications beyond the illusory tidiness of documentation.
The EU needs to abandon its vanity and address the problems it has been party to creating. Was it not the EU which talked of the fragile peace of NI yet insisted on a border now seen to be unwieldy, suffocating and damaging to relationships?
The UK has done it a favour by extending the grace periods unilaterally. It is the pragmatic route to take but the EU like the super-tanker built to serve a particular purpose is slow to change course and seems to have donned the clothing of NEVER! NEVER! NEVER! An analogue solution in a digital age.
It should take a look at NI history, as a strategy it does not work out too well in the long run.