Here’s a suggestion to unionism in dealing with Irish nationalism.

Published: 30 March 2021

Stop reacting and take control of the agenda.

“How do you feel about a united Ireland these days?” I recently asked a patriotic friend in the Irish Republic who takes more interest than most in Northern Ireland.

“Out of the question,” he said. “It took a very very long time to get this country working after we got independence. I don’t want it destabilised.”

Let’s take stock.

The Northern Irish Protocol is a disaster, as Theresa May’s backstop would have been, for the truth is that because of the land border with the EU on the island of Ireland Northern Ireland would always have to be treated differently from the rest of the UK.

I hope that the bullying behaviour of the European Commission since the Brexit referendum and its atrocious incompetence and arrogance over vaccines has helped clarify why many want to be out of an organisation run by unelected bureaucrats.

I very much wish that the two governments had not been spooked by Sinn Fein propaganda and threats into ruling out a land border when new technology, the Trusted Trader Scheme and goodwill could have made it essentially invisible. But, as everybody says these days about almost everything in our rapidly changing world, ‘We are where we are’.

The problems with the protocol worry everyone except those republican dinosaurs still wasting their lives trying to make Northern Ireland ungovernable.

Had the EU not spitefully chosen to implement it in the most negative way possible, the obstacles it posed could have overcome without too much pain and business could have been free to concentrate on capitalising on the marketing opportunities it offers.

It is taken seriously in London that Brexiter David Trimble, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and ex-first minister, who has for several years has been a loyal and effective Conservative member of the Lords, has joined Arlene Foster and Baroness (Kate) Hoey among others in a bid to secure a judicial review into the legality of the protocol.

Trimble made enormous personal and political sacrifices to get across the line a Belfast/Good Friday Agreement that required many compromises from unionists but gave no substantial concessions to nationalists that weren’t in the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement.

Yet he says: “Extensive parts of Northern Ireland — much of its economic fabric — have been turned into a colony of the European Union.”

The protocol issues will be resolved by the courts, politicians and negotiators, but they have already had a profound effect on the Irish unity debate, and not in the way Sinn Fein hoped.

Another ex-first minister, Peter Robinson, explained it here last week, “The memory of the thousands of innocent people whose lives were lost in that conflict, the tens of thousands who were physically injured and mentally scarred, the political and constitutional events of those 50 years, flooded my mind this week as I listened in amazement to the claims by Sinn Fein assembly members that it was nationalists who were being ignored and excluded in Northern Ireland.”

Unionists had endured a vile terrorist campaign, massive political and institutional change, and assaults on their culture and identity but had still “maintained faith in the democratic processes”.

But now they are disenchanted with the system and he can think of no period in his 50 years in politics when they were more alienated than they are now.

Dublin and London are paying attention to Trimble and Robinson, and now the Rev Mervyn Gibson,

Grand Secretary of Grand Orange Lodge, who has withdrawn the Order from involvement in the Shared Island Unit in the Department of the Taoiseach because it wants no part “in the process that masquerades as two neighbouring jurisdictions improving relationships for the benefit of both countries when in reality they pursue an agenda that enforces a protocol that normalises and ‘talks up’ the inevitability of a united Ireland”.

I watched all 85 minutes of Claire Byrne Live on RTE last week about thoughts towards a united Ireland and took heart from it.

Mary Lou MacDonald was same old same old and Leo Varadkar was shifty, but Taoiseach Michéal Martin described how his simplistic republicanism as a young man had been changed just by going to Northern Ireland and listening to unionists and Naomi Long asked how anyone could “talk about uniting Ireland when as Northern Ireland we remain a divided and segregated society?”

Rugby player Andrew Trimble, who has a theology degree from Belfast Bible College, said he was Northern Irish and had no wish to choose between his northern and his Irish identity.

And Gregory Campbell just said simply “I am British” and told the Irish audience that a border poll is nonsense since there are now three minorities.

It takes one back to Seamus Mallon’s wise observation in the book he published not long before he died, that nationalists and unionists have in common that they are both “largely detached from the mother countries which they identify so strongly with”.

My suggestion to unionists is to keep educating southern nationalists with unpalatable truths while refusing to participate in formal discussions about constitutional change unless options like an independent Northern Ireland or the Republic rejoining the UK are on the table.

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