Andrew McQuillan

Northern Irish unionists are united against the protocol

(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The DUP’s departed leader Edwin Poots spoke in his valedictory interview of a ‘significant victory’ heading unionism’s way regarding its bête noire, the Northern Ireland protocol.

The outright, irrevocable removal of the ‘sea border’ imposed by the protocol has become the fundamental objective of all shades of political unionism and loyalism. 

Anti-protocol street art garlanded two deeply different citadels of unionism in the past week — the working-class heartland of Belfast’s Shankill Road and the affluent County Down village of Killyleagh. There is a sense of shared purpose. 

The message implicit in the government’s command paper is ‘give us time’

Given the briefing that went before it, the good burghers of both places were no doubt expectant when the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis stood up to outline the government’s thinking on the protocol. Was it the victory that Edwin Poots promised?

The message implicit in the government’s command paper is ‘give us time’. Both Lewis and David Frost’s emphasis was that renegotiation — rather than the immediate smashing of the Article 16 glass — was the preferred option, echoing the ‘alternative arrangements’ cry of some in bygone Brexit negotiations of yore.

The reaction of the EU, the Irish government and their sympathisers in the House of Commons was typical in its outright hostility, with the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood describing it predictably as a ‘shameless position’ and the Alliance’s histrionic Stephen Farry crying bluster and revisionism.

The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, the man for whom much of the announcement was intended, was more receptive. Describing the statement as ‘welcome, significant and important’, he was keen to emphasise that ‘tinkering around the edges simply does not work’ and called on the government to invoke Article 16 should the negotiations fail.

Donaldson needs a win, that much is clear — and the cautious welcome from previously agitated elements of unionism suggests a confidence that despite the EU’s denouncement and the gnashing of teeth of their cheerleaders in Dublin and Northern Ireland, a change is coming.

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