Following weeks of disrupted trade flows, rejected calls to invoke Article 16, security concerns for officials conducting checks required at ports, and a European Commission misjudgement which would have seen Article 16 invoked, enough has been enough for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
In a statement issued by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on 2nd February 2021, a strategy was outlined with the aim of setting Northern Ireland “free” from the Withdrawal Agreement’s Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
The five-point plan includes disrupting engagement in North-South dialogue on matters relating to the Protocol, opposing Protocol-related bills, laws and other measures in Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and launching an e-petition to demonstrate the “strength of feeling” citizens have in relation to the Protocol.
While the primary aim is to prompt the UK Government to act to address the issues that have arisen in Northern Ireland as a result of Protocol, particularly in relation to trade, the Irish Government is also encouraged to become involved or to risk North-South interaction being impacted.
In order to understand the rationale behind the strategy, it is necessary to reflect on the Brexit process and, in particular, the role of the DUP in this.
The plan that would have ensured that there was no distinction between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was opposed by the DUP. The party actively engaged in steps to prevent Theresa May’s deal from passing and to bring about her eventual downfall as leader of the Conservative Party. It bolstered a relationship with Boris Johnson, supported his efforts to become Conservative Party Leader and placed so much faith in the strength of its hand within the Confidence and Supply arrangement between the two parties that what many saw as the only inevitable outcome eventually blindsided its leadership.
The DUP, in asserting its interests so forcefully with May to the point of straitjacketing her in her attempts to conclude a withdrawal deal with the EU, established the party both as a force to be reckoned with in Downing Street, and as a burden that would hinder Johnson’s plans if not offloaded when he became Prime Minister.
With the 2019 General Election removing all necessity for formal ties with the DUP, a deal was agreed and passed that was the antithesis of what the DUP had hoped to achieve. Johnson’s ambitions for Brexit took priority over the working relationship between the Conservative Party and the DUP. Where once the DUP held influence in the Brexit process, by the end this was far from the case, and the result was a very different Brexit to the one the party had campaigned for.
The DUP, having been complicit in creating the conditions that gave rise to the present situation, is now having to do the political equivalent of fighting the fires it stoked. The five-point plan that has been announced is, in effect, the party’s strategy of how it intends to do this.
The plan advances beyond mere opposition to the Protocol and signals a move to actively working against its effective implementation. In adopting an approach that seeks to undermine the Protocol in this way, such efforts consequently also undermine aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in light of Article 1 of the Protocol. From the DUP’s perspective, however, the UK Government’s insistence against invoking Article 16 is itself contrary to the principle of parity of esteem given, as highlighted in the statement, that there is no unionist support for the Protocol in Northern Ireland.
Already, the basis for legitimising the strategy is in place. In addition to this, there are a number of other key factors which together present a case for why such a strategy has been deemed necessary.
Firstly, the news that the European Commission was planning to use Article 16 as a basis to prevent the movement of vaccines from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland has added a sense of urgency to the DUP’s effort. After weeks of calls for the UK to invoke Article 16 being rejected on the basis that it was too soon, unnecessary and that it would be in bad faith, for intent with any level of seriousness to use it to have emerged from the EU landed as a double blow in this wider context. The furore this caused was not entirely misplaced – on a political level, it was an own goal for the EU, accidental or otherwise, and the credibility of the EU as a broker in the Protocol has been shaken in Northern Ireland as a result.
Secondly, the problems with the Protocol were described by the Prime Minister as ‘teething problems’ – in other words, issues that would eventually sort themselves out. By couching the very real challenges being encountered in terms of being inconvenient but not so much as to be concerning, the Prime Minister did little to instil any sense of confidence that the matter was being treated seriously.
Finally, the publication of the strategy comes in the same week that officials conducting the checks required by the Protocol at ports in Belfast and Larne have been advised not to attend work due to concerns for their safety. The formal action of carrying out these checks serves as a real example of a regulatory border being in place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which those generating the security concerns are deeply opposed to. One way this has been demonstrated has been though numerous examples of graffiti which have appeared near both places with threatening messages directed at staff.
Tweeting in response to the publication of the DUP’s plans, Johnson did not go as far as supporting the idea of invoking Article 16 as the DUP wants, but common ground was established in outlining the need for action in order to address the problems the Protocol has given rise to in Northern Ireland. The EU was also positioned as being at fault for contributing to present concerns.
But put simply, it is not in the interests of the current UK Government to be seen to use Article 16, not least given the positive affirmations that abounded about what post-Brexit life would look like for the UK. Finding a way to work through the issues is the only route that is politically realistic for Johnson to pursue, albeit that it now looks as though the groundwork may be being laid in preparation for the contrary to happen.
The real and on-going challenge for all leaders in Northern Ireland lies in convincing the UK Government about the issues arising and how severe they are. So far, these calls appear to have fallen on largely disinterested ears, or ears which are not attuned to the lived experiences of what is happening on the ground in Northern Ireland since the Protocol came into force. Plans for how to work through the issues of the Protocol can only start to form when the full extent and impact of these challenges are recognised. Until Johnson’s Twitter reaction to the DUP’s proposals, there was little to assert any level of confidence that this was the case.
Such a reaction from the Prime Minister shows a recognition that the DUP’s strategy is not merely a publicity stunt to draw attention to the problems. The vehement opposition the party has shown towards the Protocol from the outset is itself an indicator of genuine intent behind the plans.
Looking at the bigger picture, these are steps are being taken by a party which has nothing left to lose and everything to gain. Backed into a corner of its own making, the party is unable to be seen to be working to mitigate the challenges of the Protocol without being branded as having made a U-turn in terms of support for its implementation. Political competition within Northern Ireland ahead of the 2022 Assembly election only further reinforces the dangers of this.
The most obvious route for the party to try and absolve itself of the blame for its role in the Protocol’s existence is through a process of being seen to fight to bring about change and by establishing those parties seeking to smooth the operation of the Protocol – whether or not they agree with its existence in principle – as working against the union, unionism and the best interests of people in Northern Ireland.
There is nothing noble in keeping a promise to lock the stable door when the horse has long-since bolted, but it is still possible to ultimately keep that promise without making a bad situation any worse. Notably absent from the strategy is an outline of what arrangements are intended to replace the Protocol; without this level of clarity from the outset, efforts to undermine the Protocol have just as much chance of incurring detrimental consequences for people and businesses in Northern Ireland as they do of bringing about the changes the strategy aspires towards.
It also sets the stage for the 2022 Assembly election to become centred on the Protocol in anticipation of the vote that will be held in 2024 on the continuation of Articles 5-10. Neither is mentioned in the strategy but it is hard to see how these would not have featured in DUP thinking. The option of collapsing the institutions has surely also been considered in forming this plan.
All of this further adds to uncertainty at a time where clarity and political unity in purpose is needed most. This alone bears the potential to cause significant damage in the longer term. With an election fast approaching and while it may be the only option open to the DUP, this strategy is a risky move not only for the party but in terms of the impact it could have on politics as we know it in Northern Ireland.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.
This is a commendably detailed and accurate assessment of the serious developments concerning Northern Ireland. It is lamentable that the EU Commission panicked and threatened to implement Article 16 but this was corrected within hours. There is no excuse whatsoever for the DUP to throw their toys out of the pram now. They must know how dangerous a course they are taking. As Dr Rice has pointed out they are desperately trying to divert attention from their decision to campaign for brexit (the only major Northern Irish party to do so) and then to snuff out Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate a form of brexit which might have avoided its worst consequences.
There is at least some hope that the people of Northern Ireland see the point that the real cause of all this is brexit itself and are more determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement than the DUP’s hide. I say this because a recent opinion poll shows DUP support plummeting to 19%, with the pro- European anti-sectarian Alliance Party breathing down their neck at 18%. Let’s see how it goes.
It is obvious to me that the Protocol as agreed is not working to the benefit of the NI people.
So the obvious solution is the return to an open border. It was and is for the EU alone to decide whether there should be a hard border between themselves and a 3rd country. If there is a continuation of trouble and strife whilst the Protocol is in place the EU and the UK should now open talks on how to solve the problem. The UK has a duty to help NI out of the predicament it is in by showing that the EU/UK inspection is not working and should revert to distant inspection by acredited persons leaving a soft or hard border descision to each individual organisation or country.
I hasten to say that I agree that action must be taken to ameliorate the situation. However there can be no question of removing the protocol altogether. The Irish border situation will not permit that.
Just for the record:
1) The NI Protocol is a international treaty legally binding for the (not so) UK; if unilaterally revoked, it will put the (not so) UK in direct conflict with the EU, the Republic of Ireland and, last but not the least, with the United States of America;
2) Next May the hard statistical Census Decennial Data for the (not so) UK will be known, inclunding the most recent demographical data for NI. A Catholic/Republican emergent majority with a prospective border poll will be the foreseable end-results;
3) Reunification of Ireland as a full meber of the EU will become the only definite solution for all the irishmen and irishwomen;
4) Following the Legal Brexit in last 31 January 2019, the (not so) UK is both “de jure” and “de facto” a third country out of the EU, still awaiting for TCA ratification by the EU Parliament;
5) HRM Government by Brexiteers, from Brexiteers and for Brexiteers wil have to manage increasing “teething problems” of an overwhelming scale never seen before in the British Isles.
P.S.: And don’t forget also next May the Holyrood elections…
Fernando, you write: “The NI Protocol is a international treaty legally binding for the (not so) UK; if unilaterally revoked, it will put the (not so) UK in direct conflict with the EU, the Republic of Ireland and, last but not the least, with the United States of America”. No doubt you are aware, though perhaps not everyone is, that the Withdrawal Agreement allows NI to exit the protocol quite legally two years after a vote to refuse consent in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2024.
So there is no reason in international law why the EU, Republic of Ireland or the USA should object to the DUP campaigning to do just that.
A trifle early to start campaigning to remove something only just implemented, don’t you think? It is a time to cool down and agree the necessary measures to avoid the worst aspects of the agreed deal. There is no way to revert completely to the status quo. How many times were we told by the DUP and others – “Brexit means brexit”?
Denis: “A trifle early to start campaigning to remove something only just implemented, don’t you think?” The DUP never were in favour of the Northern Ireland protocol so I don’t know why they should be accused of inconsistency if they want to abolish it.
Actually I am in favour of the NI protocol, but a critical part of it for me is that the people of NI have a democratic way to get out of it. Given that most of them voted against Brexit in the first place, I don’t think they are going to, but the DUP has every right to convince them otherwise.
Congratulations for having read the first paragraph of my post.
Now try to read the other four paragraphs: NI demography and Scotland’s elections will do the rest…
Again, kind regards,
@ Fernando Ferreira
3) Reunification of Ireland as a full meber of the EU will become the only definite solution for all the irishmen and irishwomen;
-it might be an idea to ask northern irelanders…
apparently they want to remain in the UK….
Congratulations for having read the first and the third paragraphs of my post.
Now try to read (slowly) the other three paragraphs: numbers 2), 4) and 5)… including also the Post-Scriptum, by the way…
Would it be a good plan for the EU to have in place by 2024 a border that they can supervise in a manner that will please the R of I and other states of the organisation. If they do not do so anyone and his dog will be able to mussel into the area. What then of a not so united union of nations.
I understand your point but the root of this thing goes back to the incompatibility of brexit and the GFA. As a veteran of the dreadful period of “the troubles” I would go so far as to say that the degree of co-operation between North and South of Ireland and the obligations and institutions involving GB as well which the GFA established meant that neither the UK nor Ireland should have assumed the right unilaterally to leave the EU. There was just no way a satisfactory method could have been found to square the circle which brexit has caused. If the determination to leave the single market and customs union (not dictated by the referendum question) had not been pursued there would have been a chance of an acceptable outcome. As it is, this awkward protocol is probably the best that can be done if (hopefully) the worst aspects of it can be ameliorated.
Denis: “As it is, this awkward protocol is probably the best that can be done if (hopefully) the worst aspects of it can be ameliorated.” I think you are probably right here, so the DUP are wrong to pursue exit from the protocol. But they have every right to do so, and it is good that the people of NI, through their assembly, have the right to decide whether they agree with the DUP or not.
“I would go so far as to say that the degree of co-operation between North and South of Ireland and the obligations and institutions involving GB as well which the GFA established meant that neither the UK nor Ireland should have assumed the right unilaterally to leave the EU” As I have said many times before, if I had been eligible I would probably have voted Remain in 2016. Nevertheless I do not think the GFA should be interpreted to commit the Republic or the UK to remain forever within the same customs area.
“This awkward protocol” is entirely the fault of «Boris and Co.» that made the choice to reject May’s “backstop” inserted in the first Withdrawal Agreement.
What is the best thing for the (not so) UK: to reject the “frontstop” of the NI Protocol and risk the inevitable Full Hard-Blown Brexit, or to fulfill its clauses and implementing its measures?
Either way, this year will probably see the last aniversary of the rump Northern Ireland.
Enjoy it. I know I will…
“The five-point plan includes disrupting . . . opposing . . . and launching an e-petition to demonstrate the “strength of feeling”
Typical DUP – never advance any positive course if you can instead advance a negative one.
The truth is that the DUP, rather than being a normal political party, is a collection of religious fundamentalists, flat-earthers, bigoted sectarians and would-be violent extremists.
As such they should be humoured till they quite down, and then ignored completely.
Jams: “As such they should be humoured till they quite down, and then ignored completely.” Perhaps the Westminster Government could send in a District Commissioner to put those troublesome natives on the other side of the Irish Sea in order. (You keep talking about it being colonialist after all.) But if not, I think it would make sense to take the wishes of the democratically elected representatives in Northern Ireland seriously. Of course that includes Sinn Fein and the other parties as well. But I certainly don’t think throwing insults at them and talking about humouring them is a good idea, and it doesn’t seem to me a good way of preserving the Good Friday Agreement.
It seems to me greatly to the DUP’s credit that, despite extreme provocation, it never as far as I know publicly endorsed violence, even in the darkest days of the Troubles. But I think that valuation of it and the other Northern Irish parties can safely be left to the people of Northern Ireland.
Perhaps Fernando is right and the people of Northern Ireland will sometime vote to be part of the Republic. Very well, but in that case I hope that Unionists living in Northern Ireland will continue to be respected under the GFA in a united Ireland as Republicans are now. If members of the DUP choose to believe that the earth is flat (as Jam’s version of “The truth” assures us) then as far as I’m concerned let them continue to believe it.
There was not a problem between the R of I and NI.,They were not fighting each other. Both governments should have been man enough to control their people. They reneged on their responsibilities by having an agreement that allowed dissidents to continue to harm people. One life destroyed is one too many but neither government seems too concerned, nor is the EU. Do the people of either country really care just so long as they are not affected? Well! They are being affected and their Gov,ts and the EU are sitting on their principals. Shame on them and the WHO, UN plus NATO all apparently useless to intervene except to, after a good meal plus expenses agree to agree to do nothing. Arise people and remove the blockage.