James Forsyth James Forsyth

Unionist opinion will harden unless the EU gives ground

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Arlene Foster has been forced out as DUP leader because of Unionist anger about the Northern Ireland protocol. She is blamed for being far too trusting of Boris Johnson. Her party’s anger with her has been compounded by how it has fallen in the polls since the protocol started being implemented. But as I say in theTimes this morning, the protocol isn’t even yet in full effect.

If the protocol were to be implemented in full, Unionist opposition towards it would escalate to the next level. Next year’s Stormont election would turn into a proxy referendum on the protocol, with unionist parties arguing that if they can get a majority, they can vote to scrap it. This is because the concession that Johnson extracted from the EU was an agreement that the Northern Ireland assembly could scrap the protocol by a simple majority vote.

The EU would be within its rights to say that the Prime Minister signed the deal, and the UK government must now implement it. Yet such intransigence would backfire on everyone. London, Dublin and Brussels all have an interest in bolstering the forces of pragmatic Unionism. Foster’s departure and the DUP moving to a much more hardline position is a sign of what happens when they don’t.

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The whole point of the special Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland were to protect the Good Friday agreement.

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