2 December 2019

Northern Ireland’s unionists face an election dilemma


The Conservative party says this election will determine whether or not we ‘get Brexit done’.

According to Boris Johnson, against the odds, he negotiated a good deal with the EU that should be powered through Parliament without delay. To achieve this, he’s asking voters to give him a healthy majority in the House of Commons.

His message will appeal to people in Great Britain who are fed up with hearing about Brexit and feel let down that it has not happened already. However, unionists in Northern Ireland, the majority of whom voted Leave, fear that a buoyant new Conservative government will implement a Withdrawal Agreement Bill without scrutinising it properly.

On a recent campaign visit to the province, the Prime Minister assured Ulster firms that there will be no checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain if Brexit takes place on his terms. He also said, “there will be no tariffs or checks on goods coming from GB to NI that are not going to (the Republic of) Ireland”.

Business organisations are sceptical about this interpretation and some of Boris’s recent political allies are open in their derision of his analysis. The DUP greeted his deal with hostility and working-class loyalists in Northern Ireland are rallying against an agreement they’ve described as the Conservatives’ ‘betrayal bill’.

Ulster’s unionists are often portrayed as a schismatic bunch, but there is practical unanimity that Johnson’s proposals will treat the province differently, to a degree that is unacceptable.

The anger among many of them is palpable. The deal has been compared to Margaret Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish Agreement – another example of perceived Tory treachery, which granted the Dublin government a consultative role in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs. The implementation of that accord brought hundreds of thousands of protestors onto Ulster’s streets.

The comparison is not overblown. The withdrawal agreement threatens to create barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, in order to maintain seamless trade with the Irish republic. Some of its critics claim it represents a blueprint for an “economic united Ireland”.

The deal is likely to create an effective internal UK border on the Irish Sea, though Boris Johnson disputes this description. Admittedly, the DUP previously agreed to a regulatory border that would involve Northern Ireland adhering to EU rules for agriculture and manufacturing, but the party says it won’t accept divergence from the British customs regime.

‘At risk’ of tariffs?

Under the new agreement, Northern Ireland remains officially in the UK customs union, but it will abide by EU customs rules. The text stipulates that Northern Irish companies will pay tariffs when they buy goods from Great Britain – if the products are ‘at risk’ of ending up in the single market.

Initially, the ‘at risk’ category includes all materials for processing, which seems to cover anything intended for manufacturing. The Government has emphasised the potential for a joint committee, set up to oversee the deal’s implementation, to exempt certain categories of goods.

According to the Prime Minister, tariffs will be payable only on a small number of sensitive products, like firearms and exotic animals, once this process of exemption has taken place. Businesses in Northern Ireland struggle to share his confidence and their scepticism is backed up by experts. In the opinion of the director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at Sussex University, Professor Alan Winters, well over half the goods moving from GB to NI will be subject to tariffs.

EU representatives will form one part of the joint committee and it is not clear why Johnson expects an outbreak of reasonableness and pragmatism in Brussels. The expected exemptions aren’t included in the text of the deal, so companies cannot possibly rely upon them.

Similarly, the idea that the government will not enact product checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, or require Ulster companies to fill in paperwork, does not tally with its own impact assessment or the EU customs code. Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith both told House of Commons’ committees that export declaration forms will be required for NI to GB sales.

Even Boris Johnson is notably less bullish about goods travelling from mainland Britain to Ulster and this part of the equation has been neglected in discussions about post-Brexit trade. Smaller companies in Great Britain may decide not to sell into Northern Ireland at all if there are significant new complications or costs, while national retailers like supermarkets may encounter supply chain difficulties for their outlets in the province.

Meanwhile, a House of Commons’ library briefing paper suggested that Ulster’s VAT rates would be harmonised with the Republic of Ireland if the Brexit deal were implemented, thanks to its ‘level playing field’ provisions. This would mean an automatic rise in the cost of living in Northern Ireland. In certain areas, like home heating, the price rises would be considerable.

Conservative advocates of the deal, particularly those in the most pro-Brexit wing of the party, the ERG, claim that unionists’ concerns can be addressed during the implementation period that expires at the end of 2020 and during negotiations for a free trade deal. They point out that the Stormont Assembly has the option of extending the new customs arrangements after four years or, alternatively, choosing to realign with the rest of the UK.

The DUP is angry that this ‘consent mechanism’ requires a simple majority of MLAs rather than applying cross-community safeguards included in the Belfast Agreement. The ‘petition of concern’ mechanism ensures majorities of both unionist and nationalist MLAs are usually needed to pass votes on sensitive issues. On the current numbers at Stormont, nationalists and pro-remain liberals can impose their preference to stay tied closely to the EU on unionists.

On the other hand Boris Johnson believes that, for Northern Ireland, his deal is an improvement on the agreement negotiated by Theresa May. At first glance, his case appears to be weak. May’s version of the Northern Ireland protocol was described as an ‘insurance policy’ that would be implemented only if alternative arrangements were not agreed. In contrast, the new customs plan is viewed as a permanent solution to the Irish border problem.

In the Prime Minister’s defence, nearly all of the new deal’s most worrying features could have emerged under May’s ‘backstop’ plan, had the rest of the UK moved away from alignment with the single market and customs union. Her deal was intended to keep Britain tied closely to the EU, but there were no guarantees that future governments would maintain this policy. And Northern Ireland would have been left outside the UK customs territory officially, with no prospect of benefiting from trade deals with the rest of the world.

Unionists now have a dilemma that the general election is unlikely to resolve. If the Conservatives win handsomely, Johnson’s hated deal will speed through Parliament, irrespective of Northern Ireland MPs’ protests. If numbers in the Commons are tight, it would be risky for them to try to stop the UK from leaving the EU. The country is weary of the Brexit saga and unionists are likely to anger huge swathes of the population if they’re responsible for more delay, even though they believe the terms of this deal could damage the Union.

The UK is held together by laws and shared institutions, but it also depends upon a degree of social solidarity between its constituent nations and regions. An Irish Sea border will weaken the Union gravely, but unionists fear they could damage it even more seriously by alienating middle England and their traditional allies in the Conservative Party, not least as Northern Ireland’s economy is still dependent upon sizeable transfers of taxpayers’ money from Westminster to Stormont.

It is possible that, after the election, unionists will decide the most pragmatic strategy is to moderate their opposition to a Withdrawal Agreement Bill, effectively acquiescing to Boris Johnson’s plans for Brexit. Could the DUP and any other unionist MPs learn to live with the deal if the Government were to implement separate unionist friendly policies?

In the DUP’s case, it is sometimes implied that their support can be bought by lavishing more and more public money on Northern Ireland. That seemed to be the case when the party negotiated its confidence and supply arrangement with the Tories, but they won’t want to be perceived to be trading the province’s place in the UK for cash.

The prospect of remaining under EU laws with the Republic of Ireland and without Great Britain triggers unionists’ deepest fears and insecurities. A series of meetings is taking place to channel grassroots anger into some kind of protest against the deal. At a meeting in Portadown, the loyalist activist Jamie Bryson captured this sense of doom during a speech, saying, “when it comes to regulations… the Dublin government would have a greater say over Northern Ireland than the sovereign government at Westminster. Is there anyone in this room, any unionist, who thinks this is acceptable?” His audience responded with shouts of ‘no’ and ‘never’.

Quelling anxieties

Unionists already view Leo Varadkar’s government as domineering and interfering, when it comes to Northern Ireland’s internal affairs. If the Conservatives were seen to challenge Dublin’s perceived slights to British sovereignty more robustly, though, it might quell fears that Ulster has been left behind in a united Ireland in waiting.

Varadkar has supported a nationalist campaign to disapply citizenship law in Northern Ireland, so that British citizenship is not automatically conferred upon people in this part of the UK. A Tory government could win back some confidence among unionists by burying implications from Julian Smith that the British Nationality Act may be changed in line with these demands.

Unionists also believe that one-sided legacy investigations into Troubles-related killings in Northern Ireland are being used to insinuate that the British state was responsible for the conflict, while the most prolific perpetrator of violence, the IRA, was engaged in a justified, defensive campaign. They worry that new structures set up to investigate the past have been designed to perpetuate this imbalance. A new government could soothe these anxieties by pushing back much harder at republicans’ demands for further inquests into state actions and ensuring that terrorist crimes are not neglected.

None of these measures would erase the sense of abandonment that unionists feel thanks to Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU. Neither will they reverse the way the agreement changes the balance of relationships with Great Britain and Ireland and dilutes Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. But they might go some way to reassuring Ulster’s unionists that they will still have a hopeful future in the United Kingdom if the deal is implemented.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'