When I first heard the news that Bertie Ahern had made a reference to loyalists in the “ghettos [of east Belfast] and in the areas where you’re likely to get trouble” and accused them of “not having a clue about the [NI] Protocol, not a clue”, I have to admit it made me angry.
I have a lot of time for Ahern. His input and influence were crucial to getting loyalist paramilitarism to row in behind the Good Friday Agreement and there were many unionists and loyalists who believed he understood the problems they faced.
I was also angry because I’ve been part of below-the radar meetings with him over the last 18 months and had spoken to him about unionist concerns surrounding the Protocol.
Also, let’s be honest, how many people, from any background, or political persuasion, are experts on the Protocol? How many MPs, or MLAs, could go into the minutiae of the Protocol and explain the red tape and regulations?
Yet, picking on the loyalists of east Belfast seemed uncharacteristically churlish and heavy-footed of him. So, I took a closer look at what he’d actually said: “They [unionists] see it as about identity. They see it as a road to the Dublin government taking over again and this is a pathway to that. That’s the hard reality. The idea that the Protocol is about trade just passes them by. In fact, they’re not interested. Even those who you might consider to be a bit more intelligent and articulate. That is the difficulty.”
And he’s right. At the heart of the joint statement a few weeks ago from Jeffrey Donaldson, Doug Beattie, Jim Allister and Billy Hutchinson was their concern that the protocol threatened the integrity of the Union. It’s a concern that has been echoed by the Orange Order and the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC).
It’s a concern I’ve heard across wider unionism, neatly summed up by a “small-u” unionist friend a few months ago: “I won’t pretend to know all the details, but I still think something quite significant has changed in the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”
When Boris Johnson addressed the DUP conference in 2018, he insisted that no Conservative government, or Prime Minister, should sign up to any arrangement that would leave Northern Ireland as an “economic semi-colony of the EU”. Yet, that’s precisely what he did when he became Prime Minister.
He and Lord Frost have since said that the Protocol was a rushed deal, agreed under pressure to “get Brexit done”.
But having reinvented Northern Ireland as a semi-colony and pushed unionism into what I’ve previously described as the constitutional equivalent of a granny flat, Johnson can hardly claim to be surprised when unionists view the Protocol as a threat to their identity (and with no guarantee, either, that he’ll resolve their problem).
At least Ahern seems to have recognised the problem: for it seems to have eluded most politicians in the EU, Great Britain and Republic of Ireland.
It seems only five minutes ago that Leo Varadkar was waving an old copy of the Irish Times at his European counterparts and warning of the dangers of beefing-up the existing UK/Republic border.
I understood why he did it — clumsy though it was. He was referring to the consequences which would flow if republicans believed that the border was being changed to undermine their interests and identity.
Yet, when an entirely new border is put in place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, leaving Northern Ireland partly outside the legal/political/constitutional parameters of the United Kingdom, Varadkar and Coveney and what often sounds like a multitude of others claim not to understand why unionists would be concerned.
Fair enough, many of those unionists might not have a clue about the trading/economic intricacies of the border. But they do know that something has changed in their relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom.
I know there’s a tendency to dismiss unionist concerns: usually along the lines of, “Sure, there isn’t even a border you can see. Why can’t you just settle for the best of both worlds?”
I don’t see too many nationalists queuing up to embrace the Good Friday Agreement as the best of both worlds for Northern Ireland. Most see it as a staging post to a “new” Ireland.
And that’s the problem for unionists: there may not be a hard, physical border, but there is a perception that their status within the UK has changed. A perception that the Protocol itself could become part of the staging post to the “new” Ireland.
Perception is a very powerful factor in everyday politics, particularly when it comes to identity.
Nationalism and republicanism in Northern Ireland viewed a potential beefing-up of the existing border as an existential threat to their identity. They believed changing the nature and function of that border would limit their political/constitutional ambitions.
So, quite why anyone thought that unionists/loyalists would be reasonably sanguine about a new border between them and the rest of the UK is beyond me.
And that’s why Ahern was right to point out that there were ideological and identity issues for unionism which needed acknowledged and addressed, but that acknowledging and addressing that problem would be “a far more difficult one to deal with” than some others.
I’ve always thought that unionism would have to learn to live with a bespoke Protocol of some sort, but if that Protocol doesn’t resolve unionism’s identity/ideological concerns, then it just becomes another spanner in a broader process of stalemate for every aspect of politics and governance here.