“A couple of weeks before Wilson compared Northern Ireland’s fate to that of Ukraine, his DUP had, again exhibiting its paranoia over the Protocol, sabotaged the peace process in Ireland itself.”
By Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity
The week before the Russian government ordered its troops to invade Ukraine, various voices in Northern Ireland were drawing comparisons. On 18 February, Sammy Wilson, DUP MP and the leading light of the unionist ultras, said the European Community and its support for the Northern Ireland Protocol was as threatening to Northern Ireland as Russian was to Ukraine.
Then, the day before the Russian invasion Jim Allister, of the even more right wing Traditional Unionist Voice, drew the same comparison, talking of the “annexing” of Northern Ireland by the EC, and complaining that Boris Johnson’s “Tough talk over Ukraine” was not being replicated by action against the EU over the Protocol.
Welcome to the world of the unionism in Northern, where its familiar historical and contemporary trait of spotting conspiracies against them, be they from Europe, the Catholic Church, or even British governments has reached new levels of pantomime farce: where the Irish Protocol is the imagined villain nobody else can spot.
It could be peculiarly amusing if did not have serious consequences: but it does. A couple of weeks before Wilson compared Northern Ireland’s fate to that of Ukraine, his DUP had, again exhibiting its paranoia over the Protocol, sabotaged the peace process in Ireland itself, by breaking up the Northern Ireland power-executive, established as part of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). In early February its First Minister was ordered to resign by the party’s leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, thus collapsing the executive. Donaldson, incidentally, had begun his political life by being Enoch Powell’s electoral agent when the racist English supremacist had decamped to Northern Ireland to become a unionist MP there.
In marching away from the power-sharing executive, Donaldson introduced a new instability in Northern Ireland and further weakened the GFA, which had promised peace in Ireland after thirty years of “the Troubles”. Indeed, the DUP had already embarked on this by refusing to attend meetings of cross-border institutions established by the GFA. Of course, it had never liked these institutions anyway, just as it never supported the GFA. But even accepting this there was little logic in breaking up the executive over the Protocol, for this action was aimed not so much at the EC but at the British government. Donaldson complained Johnson, then embroiled in partygate, was not doing enough about the Protocol, and he said he hoped the collapse of the executive would bring the matter to British prime minister’s attention. Johnson hardly noticed, and his government did not even raise this latest unionist disruption to the peace process in the House of Commons.
Let us be clear. When the Johnson government originally signed the Protocol, it was supported by both Donaldson and the then leader of the DUP Arlene Foster. Also note that opinion polls in Northern have shown majority support there for the Protocol. And remember that while the DUP supported Brexit, the majority in Northern Ireland did not, and since then opinion polls indicate decreasing support for Brexit in Northern Ireland.
What was always quite obvious was that when Britain left Europe there was always going to be a border in either Ireland or the Irish Sea. The truth of the matter is that DUP hoped it would in Ireland, but even Boris Johnson is not so reckless to impose that. Moreover, it was only when support grew for the TUV that the DUP decided the Protocol was not after all “the best of both worlds” -as Foster originally described it.
Meanwhile, the consequences of braking up power-sharing are having real consequences. Northern Ireland’s economy is serious trouble. Indications of this, range from the highest hospital waiting in the UK to the lowest growth rate in any region of the UK. Homelessness is increasing at an alarming rate: the number of children living in temporary accommodation has risen 55 per cent in the past three years. There is available £300 million for the executive to spend to try and ameliorate such hardship, but with the executive disbanded they are not abled to allocate this money. Similarly, they are unable to draw up a promised three year budget to tackle the growing economic and social hardships being inflicted on all sections of the Northern Irish.
What, you may ask, is the British (and unionist) Labour Party saying about all of this and the DUP’s continued breaching of the GFA? Well, in the House of Commons on 7 February, Peter Kyle the party’s spokesperson on Northern Ireland stood shoulder to shoulder with DUP. He noted the actions of the party and cited the Protocol and “broken ministerial promises” for these and the executive’s collapse. He did not criticise Donaldson and friends, indeed he said, “I have sympathy for the position in which the DUP has been placed.”
Let us spell this out. It is the DUP and the DUP alone who has “placed” itself in the position it has adopted and its defiance of the GFA. Yes, Boris Johnson has broken promises to them, lied to them, led them a merry dance, but quite frankly that is what British politicians have invariably done in respect of Ireland. More fools the DUP for thinking their fellow unionists could be different this time. But just because Johnson has acted as he has does not mean the DUP is right, or that any progressive person in Ireland or Britain can have any “sympathy” with their latest actions. Johnson may now be the DUP’s enemy, but that should not make the DUP our friend.
- Geoff Bell’s latest book, The Twilight of Unionism, will be published by Verso later this year.
- Geoff Bel is the Author of “Hesitant Comrades: The Irish Revolution & the British Labour Movement,” and an activist for Labour for Irish Unity.