By Liam Clarke
Almost lost amid the drumbeats of war in Ukraine, the British government last week seems to have given up on its boast that it would ‘rip up’ the NI Protocol it had previously helped draft and had agreed. The Secretary of State Brandon Lewis told his own Tory backbenchers in parliament that the Protocol was a legal agreement that had to be honoured.
This reverses the long-standing position of the British government, which had publicly claimed it would tear up the agreement. It had also repeatedly met representatives of the Loyalist Communities Council, sometimes the sole political body it dealt with. Loyalists were behind last year’s riots against the deal. In early February Edwin Poots, the Agriculture Minister in the Assembly had ordered checks on goods from Britain should not take place. This would have been illegal under the Protocol and the order was never carried out.
The border checks remain in place, but the Assembly is gone. It has been suspended as the Unionist First Minister resigned over this issue, bringing down the power-sharing administration.
Unionism has once again been completely misled by a British government. All the claims about ending the Protocol were always hot air, as the EU, US and the population of Ireland all strongly support it. The British government could not possibly cheat this balance forces and it was delusional to think otherwise.
Now the Unionist parties have so discredited themselves over a vital issue affecting prosperity, peace and stability across Ireland that they seem extremely likely to lose out on the role of First Minister in this May’s elections.
Polls have persistently put Sinn Féin in the mid-20s, with their nearest DUP rivals in the high teens, currently capped at 20%. Of course, there is a long time until polling day itself, and there are sure to be efforts to unite the unionist vote which is currently split across three main parties. But that is not signalled in the latest poll, up to March 26.
Barring some dramatic and unforeseen development, Sinn Féin is on course to be the largest party and win the First Minister’s position. This would be an historic development, completely shocking to Unionism and undermining British governance in Ireland.
It is not just that Stormont, the Assembly’s predecessor was billed by unionists ‘a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’, this was also the character of the entire statelet. It was created through a religious sectarian headcount, ditching 3 counties of Ulster to achieve a large in-built Protestant majority. Until the most recent period it has been dominated by the ideology and practices of religious sectarian supremacism, comparable to Israel, Apartheid South Africa or the slave states of the US.
It is therefore extremely unlikely the unionist parties will accept their new role. With characteristic sexism, some have already talked of refusing to be ‘bridesmaid to Sinn Féin.’ However the British government never relishes the prospect of direct rule from Westminster, as this clarifies the real situation of the colonial status of the north of Ireland. There does not seem to be a ready solution for either of them.
No doubt too there will be the most reactionary forces in the Tory party (and possibly elsewhere) who will argue in favour of Westminster imposing an alternative solution to the Unionist crisis they have created. But this would mean ripping up the Good Friday Agreement, not just the Protocol and would leave Britain completely isolated.
As a result, the next period contains the possibility of an outright crisis of British rule in Ireland. Socialists will continue to argue that Britain never has and never could have any useful or progressive role in Ireland and the sooner it leaves the better.