THERE ARE ONLY three broad ways to solve the Brexit situation in Northern Ireland, assuming that the UK is not going to rejoin the EU.
First, the current arrangement, which means checks in the Irish Sea, and an effective customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Second, an arrangement where the whole of the UK is in the customs union, meaning no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but also curtailing the UK’s ability to undercut the EU on workers rights and environmental standards – which is the aim of Boris Johnson’s Brexit. This was the essence of Theresa May’s Chequers agreement.
Third, reneging on the Good Friday Agreement and shutting nationalists out of the governance of Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty with the Republic of Ireland, so this would be a very serious step.
The Good Friday Agreement ended over 25 years of political violence by creating a power-sharing agreement. It meant there would have to be nationalists in government, that the days of unionists having a monopoly on power were over.
It is worth noting that the DUP opposed the Good Friday Agreement on the grounds that it required nationalists to be involved in the running of Northern Ireland. The ‘Democratic’ in the party name refers to the belief that democracy means majority rule, which excludes minorities – even if those minorities are over 40 per cent of the population.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP have been largely unhappy participants in government, focused mainly on funnelling government money to their supporters through programmes like the Renewable Heat Initiative, which paid people £1.08 for every £1 of woodchip they burned.
It is difficult to understand what the DUP have been trying to achieve with their support for Brexit, their opposition to the Chequers deal which would have preserved the territorial relationship with Great Britain enjoyed during EU membership, and then voting for an election that delivered the Boris Johnson “oven ready” Brexit which they now so vociferously oppose.
The only explanation that makes any sense is that they believe they can get the British government to renege on the Good Friday Agreement. It may mean the abolition of the power-sharing executive at Stomont. But it would deliver what they want: an end to Irish nationalists being in government, and a severe setback for hopes of a united Ireland.
Of course, the UK reneging on an international treaty would make Britain even more internationally isolated. While that’s not a concern for the DUP, or for many British voters, it will result in yet more impoverishment in the name of British chauvinism.
The obvious solution to the Northern Ireland protocol is a deal that looks like the one Theresa May’s government came up with. That would solve the problems that agricultural and seafood exporters have too. It would be deliverable, and with the chances of a trade deal with the US diminished, it might offer the best way to maximise market access for British business.
The threat is that Brexit tough-talking appears very popular with the electorate, many of whom seem prepared to sacrifice both prosperity and peace in Northern Ireland to have the hardest possible Brexit.
While the British electorate (in practice, a large chunk of England’s electorate) has the right to choose poverty, they do not have the right to plunge Northern Ireland back into violence.
* There is an update from 20 June 2021 here.
© Peter McColl is a policy and political analyst. Based in Scotland, he is originally from Belfast, and is a past Rector of the University of Edinburgh.