Eyes wide shut
Nothing to see here in the Brexit dispute
1 Mach 2021
In the past weeks the Democratic Unionist party has sprung into overdrive on the issue of the so-called Irish sea border. A unionist controlled council has spread totally untrue stories about threats and they and the agricultural minister pulled staff from Larne Harbour inspection points. That issue is resolved and then Arlene Foster meets with the leaders of loyalist paramilitaries. A number of leading DUP figures have openly waved the threat of loyalist violence. The pace quickens when the temporary agriculture minister suspends work on new inspection facilities and the recruitment of extra staff. The real agriculture minister had been told he did not have the legal power to do this, but the substitute cited an overall need to protect the union with Britain as legal justification. Just to demonstrate how stable the local administration is, he told the press before speaking to the other parties in the administration.
What's going on? As in the original Brexit deal, the British will pay lip service to unionism but act in their own interests, a fact illustrated by Boris Johnson's blowing smoke rings about an imaginary tunnel system under the Irish sea (with its own roundabout under the Isle of Man). The unionists have no purchase. However they have to act.
They have to act because they supported Brexit in the face of majority opposition and own the consequences. They have to act because the further right Traditional Unionist Voice are making gains, as are the more moderate Alliance party. They have to act because, if they are not the biggest party, Sinn Fein would appoint the First Minister at the next election and the administration would immediately collapse. The overall reaction is to immediately unite with the unionist paramilitaries and threaten violence.
What the DUP have to do is what they do, without reference to the other parties. There are no sanctions. As one unionist commentator put it, the DUP are acting to destroy Brexit and all the other parties, mostly remain parties, are struggling to save it. Sinn Frin were criticised last week when they criticised PSNI treatment of the victims of a loyalist atrocity only to then vote confidence in the Chief Constable. Now they brand the inspection move as a hoax - meaning that they don't have to do anything. In the midst of the current chaos no-one mentions a United Ireland as the obvious solution to Brexit. That's kept as a shiny object to be deployed as a diversion from the actual trajectory of Sinn Fein.
That's just as well. The idea of equality in government is a myth. The DUP have overwhelming power because they are constantly willing to walk away from the St Andrews Agreement while all the other parties depend on the government for influence and patronage. That extends outside the Assembly. The trade unions signed up to the settlement and the small socialist groups have lined up with the unions. All are involved in community groups and NGOs fed by a stream of grants and payments.
The sea border dispute shows the reality of the North. A sectarian, jury-rigged and unstable system glued together by a widespread determination to keep eyes wide shut.