Apprehension motivates most unionist thinking on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the biggest fear being the unification of Ireland. MALACHI O'DOHERTY investigates
How is Northern Ireland to cope with British ambivalence on the Union?
We have seen again how internal Tory party political wrangling over Brexit takes little account of us. When your lover’s concern for your happiness begins to wane you suspect something is going on.
The deep fear of unionists in Northern Ireland is that Ireland is moving inexorably towards unification, probably some time in the 2030s, and that Britain is perfectly content with that.
More, they fear that Britain could deftly inch us incrementally towards unification. This fear is what motivates much of the unionist objection to the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal deal, a treaty on trade that most people would have little interest in so long as they could still get their courgettes and lactose free milk, their fags and their beer.
Ostensibly the protocol was devised to facilitate trade between Northern Ireland and Britain, not to make any actual constitutional change in the character of the Union itself.
Where there were political considerations in the original drafting, they were aimed at soothing nationalist, not unionist fears, by avoiding the creation of a hard border in Ireland.
But constitutional implications matter to unionists too, more than the practical difficulties.
Are we really to believe that the ordinary voter who isn’t a lorry driver is angered on behalf of lorry drivers confronted with extra paper work?
It’s not the steady flow of courgettes and lactose-free milk into Sainsbury’s that they care about. They worry about the erosion of the Union, the prospect that they will wake up one day in a united Ireland having hardly noticed how it was brought about.
They suspect shenanigans despite the fact that there is a consent principle secured in treaty that says a united Ireland cannot be imposed on them.
Peter Robinson was a long time sidekick of Rev Ian Paisley and later his usurper to become first minister of Northern Ireland. He articulated the problem with the consent principle as far back as 1993.
In December of that year, the first outline of what would be the Good Friday Agreement was set out in a joint declaration by Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Prime Minister John Major.
This was good for unionists. It confronted republicans on their core principle, that only the people of the whole island could exercise Irish self-determination. Yet in time even the Provisional IRA bought into Northern consent.
Robinson wondered where the catch was.
He argued that the trap for unionists was in the principle applying only to the end point of the process, the final decision on unity. All sorts of little constitutional tweaks could be made in advance of that, such as might even make the ultimate decision unavoidable.
When the Supreme Court last month ruled that the protocol is legal, that the Act of Union has been legally changed, many argued that this killed off the basis of unionist objections to the protocol. In fact, some unionists saw it as confirming their fear. Another step had indeed been taken towards unity. The Act of Union had been modified by legislation. This, they felt, had been done deviously and without due reference to them. A union, after all, is a partnership. Both parties to it should agree modifications if there are to be any.
Ireland was now a single market. All this paperwork for imports from Britain meant that we were being nudged towards getting our courgettes and lactose-free milk from the republic. This would lead to increasing dependence on the republic, a single island economy, to God knows what.
Objectively this sounds fine to most people. The island already is an economic unit. Milk from northern cows gets processed in the south and sent back.
There already were constraints on bringing agricultural products through ports and airports into Northern Ireland. If you had bought a ham sandwich on the Stranraer ferry and drove down the gangplank into Larne with half of it uneaten in your jacket pocket you were breaking the law.
The inviolability of the Union had hardly seemed compromised until those regulations were extended through the protocol.
Now Unionism is divided between those who want no interference with goods coming from Britain, on the principle that this dilutes the Union, and those who will settle for practical arrangements that don’t disrupt trade.
The difference between them is in the degree of confidence they have in Britain’s commitment to the Union.
And if some unionists are getting that picky, maybe their sensitivity is exacerbated by a fear that Britain doesn’t care.
It’s like a marriage that falls apart over whether someone leaves the toilet seat up or uses the wrong toothbrush. This never happens between people who love each other but when one suspects the other of indifference then the little thing that illustrates detachment or lack of due consideration may be the trigger for a massive row.
When that happens, the injured party seems petty. “Oh, catch yourself on; it’s only a bloody toothbrush” Or “Who cares where the bloody courgettes come from?”
Something like that has been simmering for decades now between British Northern Ireland and Great Britain. One partner is losing interest and the other is sulking.
One fears that a master plan is unfolding that will end in Protestant children having to learn Irish at school and the tricolour flying over Stormont. The other doesn’t seem to care.