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Political lockdown in Ireland as Unionist border fever rages

6 February 2021

The decision by the EU to briefly try to prevent vaccine movement across the Irish border before immediately retreating has sparked a full scale revolt by the Democatic Unionist party.

The DUP said its plan was to:

  • Not participate in any North-South political structures on issues relating to the protocol.
  • Call for unionist unity
  • Campaign in Westminster
The campaign runs alongside the mobilisation of a section of loyalist paramilitaries and claims of intimidation of workers at inspection points. The DUP,  as is standard,  condemn violence, but all their mobilisations involve a quiet understanding with loyalist groups.

 The background is as follows:

The DUP were fervent supporters of Brexit while a majority of the population of the North opposed it. They were sold out by Boris Johnson, who agreed an Irish Sea border to get Brexit through and then found it impossible to renege on it when a deal with the US fell through. The outcome is difficulty in getting standard goods through from Britain,  a refusal by some firms to deliver, and a growing perception that the area is being detached from the UK.

The DUP vote has been falling like a stone and the vote of the ultra right (even by unionist standards) Traditional Unionist Voice has increased sharply. Middle class support has been moving towards the Alliance party. The outcome of a divided unionist vote would be the emergence of Sinn Fein as the leading party in government.

That's the basis for the DUP campaign. The suggestion that it is a response to loyalist threats is nonsense.  There was a low level of loyalist graffiti,  but  Mid and East Antrim council,  led by mayor, DUP councillor Peter Johnston and chief executive Anne Donaghy ignored police advice, and based the withdrawal of workers on claims that trade unions had raised concerns about intimidation,  claims that that the unions later refuted. The Department of Agriculture, led by hardliner Edwin Poots, withdrew workers from the inspection office at Larne in direct opposition to police advice.  Concern is expressed at threats from a unionist coordinating commission, but no-one remembers that this commission was the creation of the DUP.

The fact  is that the DUP is a party of insurrection.  When they are in control they are happy to don the garb of respectability. When crossed they link with the Orange Order and paramilitaries to threaten sectarian conflict.

Everyone else knows the playbook by heart. The police stand back as the thugs come out. Union officials bluster about workers rights when effectively calling for capitulation to the threats, though in this case they have protested about being used to spread misinformation. Sinn Fein call for calm and keep a low profile. The Tory government leap to the defence of unionism.

However history is unlikely to repeat itself. The checks on goods at Larne and Belfast were agreed by the British as part of the Brexit deal. The DUP were thrown under the bus and have had little influence since. It's true that Boris Johnson has come out in their support, but this is because, like the DUP, the Brexit fall-out has made him highly unpopular and, like the DUP, he would welcome a distraction as he rallies his followers against "Johnny Foreigner".

But Johnson calls for an extension of the grace period until 2023 while the DUP call for the scrapping of the Irish Sea border. The DUP call is a call for a repudiation of the agreement with Europe, a return to hard Brexit, and exclusion from the European market.

That's not going to happen. The Tories threaten to tear up Article 16, but this simply a handbrake for resolving disputes. They have already seen the chaos of a yellow pack Brexit deal and have no immediate interest in no deal at all.

The narrative of a Brexit collapse distracts from the real problem.  That is the continued fragility of the political settlement in Ireland. The unionists find themselves the leadership of an agreement they do not support.  They are partially reconciled by holding the majority of power and patronage, but now the fragile unionist coalition is suffering both economic and political blows as a result of Brexit. In part the move by Poots is aimed at DUP leader Arlene Foster and she is trying to ride the tiger, deflecting from the loyalists towards a parliamentary petition at Westminster.

Nationalists,  lacking any real strategy to achieve a United Ireland, are fond of "Just So" stories indicating that the goal will arrive automatically. The Irish Sea border is the latest illustration of this approach and a recent remark by George Osborne,  former Tory chancellor, that his party is indifferent to the fate of unionism caused great excitement.

In the real world nationalists avoid any practical moves towards a United Ireland.  Despite repeated calls from epidemiologists they have avoided any call for an all Ireland strategy to combat the virus. Instead we have "4 nation" strategies North of the border and "2 island" strategies in the South. In practice there is a de facto partition as Garda threaten to fine northerner crossing the border.

But political progress won't fall from the sky. As expected,  the crisis of Brexit has fallen upon unionism. It swiftly moved right and the threat of violence is in the air. Sinn Fein and the unions are keeping their heads down, the cops are escorting loyalisr paramilitaries in shows of strength while harassing and arresting victims of a loyalist massacre. The British react by swearing undying support for the union.

The optimists believe that if the unionist vote fragments Sinn Fein will become  the governing party. What will happen is paramilitary mobilisation and the collapse of the Stormont administration.

The left and unions are in disarray.  Many supported Brexit.  The same forces are happy to acknowledge right wing paramilitaries as the voice of Protestant workers. The alternative is a future in a tug of war between Britain and Europe.

The socialist position is straightforward. A United Ireland, a Workers’ Republic and a United Socialist States of Europe. Reaching these goals is difficult, but having no goal for the workers movement is a council of despair.

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