By Mark Buckley
The British government is responsible for the renewed turmoil in Ireland, which includes the removal of Arlene Foster as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Loyalist rioting that preceded it.
The fundamental reason for the disturbances on the streets as well as in the main party of Unionism in the north of Ireland is the outcome of Brexit and the NI Protocol which was part of it. These change the relationship with Britain to the extent that the north of Ireland effectively remains in the same customs and trade bloc with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU, while Britain’s Brexit means that it now has a customs border between Ireland as a whole.
Boris Johnson and other ministers had explicitly pledged this would not happen, even appearing with a great fanfare at a DUP conference as part of his campaign for the Tory leadership to make that false promise in person.
This matters to Unionists because politically theirs is a supremacist and reactionary ideology which places them in a superior position to Irish nationalists. Although reducing over time, the position of material and political privilege has been backed up by the British State, including its security forces. The Unionists’ fear is that the NI Protocol is politically the first step on the road to ending inequality and towards Irish unity.
Unfortunately for all the main Unionist parties, they believed Boris Johnson. They backed his opposition to any soft Brexit outcome, which would not have required new border arrangements at all. But rather than learn any lessons from this debacle they are now following the Tory government’s opposition to the NI Protocol that it signed and the outlandish claims that they can unilaterally rewrite it, or even just tear it up.
The Unionist parties once again believe that with the backing of a Westminster government they can raise a time-worn rallying cry of ‘Ulster says No!’ But their fiasco over the NI Protocol has left its political scars.
The leading Unionists of the DUP find themselves at just 19% in polls, losing a third of their support in the last NI Assembly elections in 2017. The same polling shows that DUP voters have largely defected to the even more reactionary TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice), who have risen from a fringe party to 10% since 2017.
With the next Assembly elections due no more than a year from now, there will be concerted efforts in Westminster to put the pieces back together of the Unionist political monolith, which first began to fracture under the impact of the Peace Process and then the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). But the first-ever contested election for DUP leadership does not suggest that will be an easy task.
The Assembly elections could be undemocratically suspended by the Tory government using some pretext or another, simply to save the Unionists, who are deeply divided. They are torn between different combinations of undemocratic, unworkable or delusional policies on removing the border in the Irish Sea and yet retaining the same access to EU markets, or maintaining devolved government but reducing the role of Nationalists and Republicans, or Direct Rule and abandoning the Good Friday Agreement altogether.
However, many of these delusions are shared by the fanatical ideologues of an exceptionally right-wing British government. If the task is reuniting Unionism against the combined threat of non-Unionism and Irish Republicanism, they are bound to consider tearing up the Good Friday Agreement completely, as it has already done with the Protocol, the Overseas Operations Bill, and many other issues.
That would be a reckless adventure, and ignores the international relation of forces ranged against the British government if it went down that path. But that alone does not rule it out.
In this perspective, Labour leaders should already be challenging the government over its attempt to undermine the Protocol, which encourages the most intransigent Unionism. It should also be seeking international allies to defend the Good Friday Agreement. But if the Starmer faction refuses this historic task, it falls to the Labour left to defend the GFA and Labour’s own supporting role in it.