By Tom Kelly (Tony Blair’s spokesman from 2001 to 2007 and a former Northern Ireland Office spokesman and BBC NI Political Editor), originally published in The Times
What matters more in the row over the Northern Ireland protocol: the ideological position of the government or the actual views of people in Northern Ireland?
What is clear is that if it invokes Article 16, the government will be acting against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland and their representatives.
That raises fundamental questions about the nature of democracy in Northern Ireland — questions which, incredibly, raise once again the spectre of an unfair society in which the perceived views of one section of the community are given preference over the rest.
Are we heading back to the pre-Troubles days when a unionist vote was worth more than that of a non-unionist — except that this time it is a case of “minority rule” since unionism no longer represents the majority of people in Northern Ireland?
The government will, of course, deny any such intent and say it is trying to get a deal which has cross-community consent, but it does not have consent to invoke Article 16.
What the public actually want is a deal with compromise on both sides and the row ended so they can focus on their real priorities: recovering from Covid, fixing the health service sand reviving the economy.
As a survey published last week from the highly respected Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool showed, those three subjects rank well above the protocol as priorities for people in Northern Ireland. Only 9 per cent said the protocol was their top priority — 59.8 per cent chose health, Covid recovery and the economy.
Given that — and the other results in the survey — it concludes that the data “does not support the invocation of Article 16 due to societal difficulties” as the government has claimed, and it goes further to suggest that even a majority of unionists do not want to reject the compromise proposals put forward by the EU last month.
Yes, they want as frictionless trade as possible across the Irish Sea, but they want it sorted by consensus, not conflict. On all sides the fundamental desire is to move on – except that of the government.
So why is there such a disconnect between the view and approach of the government and that of most people in Northern Ireland?
Partly, I think, it is because it has suited the government to hype the difficulties caused by the protocol. There are difficulties, and the EU has been slow to recognise them, but they are not so fundamental as the government has claimed, and certainly not important enough to trump people’s desire to make local government at Stormont work.
The second reason, however, I think is more significant. The Westminster Village view of Northern Ireland is out of date, stuck in a time warp. It still thinks that unionists represent the majority of people in Northern Ireland and that the constitutional issue is what most people care about — and if it comes to a choice between unionism and Sinn Fein they know what side they are on. The reality is different — more complex, diverse and, ultimately, hopeful.
As the survey confirms, there is no “majority” community in Northern Ireland. While nearly 40 per cent identify as unionist and 27 per cent as nationalist, 33 per cent say they are neither. That means the Belfast Good Friday agreement has done what it was meant to: it has created a more diverse politics in which we can escape the Orange/Green zero-sum game of the past.
And people want it to work. The survey found very little support for the DUP’s threat to pull down Stormont if it doesn’t get its way on the protocol — including among DUP supporters. It also found no great groundswell for Sinn Féin’s push for a United Ireland now: nearly 59 per cent want to stay in the Union, 30 per cent to leave. Only 1.4 per cent of people said constitutional issues were their top priority.
So, the basis and desire for progress is there, the chance to address the people’s real concerns rather than indulging in sham fights, whether in Northern Ireland or between Britain and the EU.
The question is this: do the parties in Northern Ireland respond to that desire and — more importantly at the moment — does the British government? Is Northern Ireland a democracy, or not?