There’s been huge controversy since the introduction of VAR into Premiership soccer, but its more recent introduction into Northern Ireland politics is potentially even more divisive.
Unionism looked to be making increasingly desperate appeals to VAR (Very Aberrant Reasoning) to try to get their monumental own goal over the Irish Sea border ruled out, when lo and behold the EU levelled the score with a spectacular strike into their own net.
If the EU hadn’t made such a demi-tour rapidement on their blunder, I think it would have been illuminating to see whether Her Majesty’s Government would have been any more inclined to accede to the DUP demands to invoke Article 16: I would wager not. It was not just Teresa May that they held to ransom with their ill-judged wielding of power, it was the whole British Establishment, and there will be a price to pay.
Anything and everything was being (and may well continue to be) thrown up as a pretext for asking Westminster to revoke “the Protocol”, but the brutal truth is that the DUP no longer have votes in the Commons that matter; and when they did, they made choices with the strategic insight of a cuttlefish.
Unionism needs to get its act together: it needs a calibre of leadership that quite frankly I don’t think it has ever had in its century of existence. It wasn’t needed in the early decades, but it is sorely needed now: something more statesmanlike than “I don’t believe in that green guff anyway” as a position on the Climate Crisis (just because Covid has dominated the headlines in 2020, our choking planet hasn’t gone away, y’know).
Remarks like these might gratify and satisfy their internal electorate, but Unionism’s biggest weakness has always been the susceptibility of Northern Ireland to external events on a larger scale. A change of government in London, a change of government in Washington, or any other shift of power on the world stage can impact affairs here.
The end of Britain’s “selfish, strategic and economic interest” in Northern Ireland, announced by Secretary of State Peter Brooke in 1991 following the end of the Cold War, was one such game changer: Brexit is another, especially with the knock-on consequences for the break-up of the UK as we know it, potentially without the need for even a single vote to be cast on this side of the water.
Boris Johnson looks a worried man these days, and I don’t think it’s just the calamitous death rate from Covid. He sees the end of the UK happening on his watch. Hence the “essential” trip to Scotland last week to try to make the case for the Union. If Scots do vote for independence (even in a vote with no constitutional authority) he will only have himself to blame: how much of his championing the cause of Brexit was principled conviction, and how much was shameless opportunism on the basis that it served his ambitions to become Prime Minister? Too late to think about that now Boris. Ego, arrogance and ambition can do so much damage in politics (look no further than the mess in which the United States is).
I would rarely recommend following any example set by BoJo, but Unionism also needs to get on the road and start selling the benefits of the Union. It will improve its chances of success if it can muster a united approach across its various parties, and if it can sideline the clowns who have showboated on the safety of their constituency majorities for years. If Unionism is to have a future it can no longer afford to be represented by some of the current crop of shallow and self-serving lightweights.
Trevor Lunn recently wrote in this forum that the case for staying in the UK is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be. I think in the past, Unionists were confident that there would be enough voters who knew from where their public sector pay cheque or their welfare payment was coming not throw us on the mercy of a far smaller economy. We are now in a position where if it suited the EU to take over sponsorship of our basket case economy from Her Majesty’s Treasury, the financial impact of a change of sovereignty might be less of a compelling factor.
So much is at stake, and so much is uncertain. A hundred years after its creation, what has become a statelet of the co-marooned really is at a crossroads. The case for Unionism has to be forward-thinking – hardly an attribute for which its current representatives have established a reputation. Trying to revoke “the Protocol” and claw back lost ground is backward looking and doomed to fail. That said, if Scotland votes for independence and rejoins the EU, the DUP’s embarrassment over the Irish Sea arrangements might eventually go away as poor old Michel Barnier is hauled out of retirement to try and negotiate a new border on mainland Britain. The EU might even replace the Irish Sea border with the bridge to Scotland that is so beloved of DUP manifestos.