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Future of NI again pivots on an event outside its control

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David Trimble

David Trimble

David Trimble

David Trimble is not known for making frivolous or self-serving interventions in political life here.

Since he stepped down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in 2005, he has largely kept his own counsel, preferring to focus on the House of Lords, where he sits as a Conservative peer.

Which makes his contribution to the debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol at the weekend all the more significant.

As the co-author (with the late John Hume) of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, his words deserve to be considered carefully: this is not a former politician who wants to make a speech; this is one with something to say.

Writing in the Irish Times, Trimble argues that only tearing up the Protocol will save the 23-year-old Agreement, as it ignores the fundamental principle on which it was constructed: the principle of consent.

"My primary objection to the Protocol is that it changes fundamentally the constitutional relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK," he writes. "Northern Ireland is no longer fully part of the UK - it has been annexed by the EU and is subject to EU laws and an EU court without any right of dissent.

"I personally feel betrayed by this. I made huge personal and political sacrifices to persuade the people of Northern Ireland of the Belfast Agreement's benefits. Not only do I personally feel betrayed, but the majority unionist population in Northern Ireland feel betrayed, too.

"In order to honour the hard-fought economic, democratic and peaceful gains of the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol must not be allowed to stand."

Unionists will have the opportunity to make their case in a Commons debate today, but their range of options to give effect to this - never expansive - has narrowed to two, neither of them particularly palatable.

Plan A is basically that the DUP defy Downing Street and Brussels, but that risks unleashing street protests which could prove impossible to contain in the long run. Loyalist leaders are already warning of the potential for a long, hot summer of discord.

This could end up collapsing the devolved institutions for the second time in four years, leading to fresh elections, which could see strong Alliance gains at the expense of the DUP.

According to a Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll last month, support for the DUP has plunged to a 20-year low of 19% - more than nine percentage points down on its vote share in the last Stormont election - while Alliance recorded an increase of almost 9% on 2017.

Plan B is for the DUP to stress the economic advantages of the Protocol while downplaying the constitutional implications, which was de facto party policy until January 29, when the EU blundered spectacularly by trying to invoke Article 16 over, of all things, the AstraZeneca vaccine.

This, in turn, risks the DUP haemorrhaging support to Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice, which had a record 10% support among the electorate, according to the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll.

Of course, there is also the standard default position for any Northern Ireland political party in a jam: muddle along, committing to neither position, and hope no one notices.

The danger in such a stalemate is that it creates a political vacuum which paramilitaries and other irreconcilable elements would be only too happy to fill. Whatever happens in London or Brussels, the game-changer could take place far from both capitals.

Current polling data indicates that the Scottish National Party is on course to secure a majority in May's elections to the Scottish Parliament, with a mandate for a second independence referendum which, if successful, would shatter the Union beyond recognition. How long Boris Johnson, or his successor in Number 10, can resist such a step is anyone's guess, but the inevitability of another plebiscite would seem unarguable.

Northern Ireland's future has often pivoted on events outside of its control. The foaming waters that roil beneath Holyrood may be about to make that so again.

Belfast Telegraph


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