Early Monday morning, a bus was set on fire in Newtownards by two armed, masked men, who may have links to the UVF. Then, more ambiguously, an attempted protest against the Protocol at Lanark Way in Belfast turned into a riot, with police reportedly attacked “on both sides of the interface”.
You can see why some people might conclude that these incidents strengthen the arguments against the separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The Protocol’s emergency brake, Article 16, can be triggered if it causes serious “societal hardship” that may persist. These difficulties are not defined in the text, but it would be difficult to argue, in a society like Northern Ireland, that disorder in the streets or political instability would not be admissible.
Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, pro-EU liberals across the UK and, in particular, the government in Dublin have repeatedly raised the specter of Republican violence during Brexit negotiations, as a negotiating tactic . Infamous Leo Varadkar produced a newspaper clipping about an IRA attack on a customs post during an EU meeting, to substantiate his argument against new controls and infrastructure at the Irish land border.
As recently as 2019, SDLP MP Claire Hanna told Business Inside: “If 60% of the people don’t want a border on the island and you say ‘shit, we put you in the inside a hard border, “you can’t expect people to hush it up and take control of their lives… You can’t imagine people would accept this without at least civil disobedience.
Loyalists in Northern Ireland, who feel cut off from the rest of the UK to appease nationalist threats, cannot fail to have noticed the success of this strategy.
If a few cameras at an existing international border are seen as an incitement to Republicans, then how much more provocative for trade unionists is a new economic and political frontier separating them from Britain and the dismantling of the act of parliament that created the UK ?
While there is logic in this way of thinking, it does not follow that violence is justified and it certainly does not mean that it will result in something positive. If the campaign against the Protocol becomes associated with disorder, it will inevitably alienate moderate pro-Union opinion and undermine the united front of trade unionism against the Irish Sea border.
You can see it’s starting already, with loyalist activists bickering online with representatives of Unionist political parties. They claim to have been misrepresented by people like Mike Nesbitt, MPP, who openly criticized the Lanark Way protest.
I can understand why the loyalists find the tone adopted by some politicians condescending. Many were consistent in their opposition to the Protocol, instinctively grasping how it was redefining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, even when parties were slow to respond. Loyalty is extremely sensitive to the fact that the people of Stormont have comfortable jobs and salaries
At the same time, the strength of the coalition against the Protocol is that it covers all the nuances of trade unionism. The most moderate trade unionist cannot accept being prevented from buying goods from a part of his own country, or from a foreign power, rather than from Westminster, having the final say on important aspects of the internal affairs of OR.
Even if the violence is perpetrated by a tiny minority of extremists, it will shake the resolve of less politicized pro-Union people.
Already, you are hearing some trade unionists questioning whether putting so much energy into the Protocol has resulted in trade unionism bogging down in negativity. It is a naive argument. Positive unionism is inherently about playing a full role in the UK, and the Protocol prevents people in Northern Ireland from doing so. But it shows how tempting it is for trade unionists to step away from a problem that may seem intractable.
The mess will also destroy the genuine sympathy many people across the country have for the plight of Northern Ireland. On the continent, it is widely accepted that dividing the UK economically is wrong because Brussels says it is necessary to protect its single market.
This sentiment explains why the government is making at least a few attempts to sort out a mess it played such an important role in creating.
Trade unionists, whatever their exact political stripe, have every right to be hurt and angry at the Protocol. Indeed, it is most remarkable that their actions and rhetoric have so far been so restrained.
This may be a blatant double standard, given the success of Republican threats of violence, but it is a fact of life that the disorder in the streets will only undermine the campaign against the UK’s internal border. .
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