David Ervine famously said Unionists are clairvoyant and the news is always going to be bad. And, in truth, sometimes it is. The NI Protocol element of Brexit was not good news. There have been and are serious consequences arising from it and most Unionists believe that their citizenship of the United Kingdom has been undermined. Our rights, opportunities and privileges have been curtailed by decisions taken on our behalf without our consent.
Unionist culture has suffered a sustained campaign of attrition by Republicans, despite Republican claims to respect Unionists and their stated goal of creating ‘an Ireland of Equals’. Such claims ring echoingly hollow in the light of actions over the past year including opposition to any form of commemoration of the centenary of the State of Northern Ireland. Their refusal to even use the name Northern Ireland illuminates their hypocrisy.
We are told continually that Northern Ireland is a ‘failed statelet’, an economic basket case but in fact the opposite is true. In a recent discussion on the Centenary, Professor Paul Bew said, ‘Everyone believed the Northern Ireland state was doomed, it would not survive politically or economically.’ Not only has the country survived against the odds but it has, in many respects, thrived. After a very difficult start a strong economy was established in the decades spanning the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the collapse of heavy engineering and manufacturing throughout western Europe in the second half of the 20th century and 30 years of unremitting violence from the IRA, Northern Ireland has again emerged as a success story. Following a destructive terrorist campaign, we created a peace process, recreated many of our institutions, set about rebuilding our economy, developed an international film and screen hub, become a world leader in cybersecurity, a leading destination for Fintech investment and have developed a highly successful tourism industry with 5.3m overnight visitors in 2019. Titanic Belfast was named the World’s leading tourist attraction by World Travel Awards, Belfast Waterfront was named the Best Event Space in the UK and National Geographic named Belfast one of the top food destinations in the world.
Since the Belfast Agreement in 1998 we have created jobs, established a social economy, upgraded our technological infrastructure and developed a thriving cultural economy. This has been achieved by working together in partnership. The glass may not be overflowing but it is certainly more than half full. The people of Northern Ireland have shown resilience and resourcefulness in impressive measure. Without ignoring the problems, Unionists and Loyalists should be confidently broadcasting these successes. To be focusing on negatives or potential problems is self-defeating. The same attributes that contributed to these successes can be refocused on overcoming the socioeconomic problems that Loyalist and Republican communities both grapple with.
To return to the NI Protocol, while there are serious problems that need addressed there have already been significant wins. In January 2021 Boris Johnston dismissed the problems as teething problems. After initially denying the existence of an internal border in the UK he was reluctant to admit there was anything more than minor and temporary disruption due in part to Covid. However, on 1st October 2021, in an interview with the Irish Times he admitted that the NI Protocol needs ‘fixed or ditched’. This is a major shift in position and a victory for Unionism. Likewise, Lord Frost, after meeting many stakeholders described the NI Protocol as ‘unsustainable’. Significant progress. The British Government subsequently issued its Command Paper in which it called for a renegotiation of the Protocol.
For many months the EU insisted the Protocol was an International Agreement and could not be renegotiated, but on 13th October Vice-President Maros Sefcovic presented ‘a robust package of creative, practical solutions’. These proposed solutions will not properly resolve the problems, but they represent significant progress achieved by Unionist pressure and arguments. After resolutely insisting the Protocol could not be changed the EU now acknowledges it must be changed. This is a clear victory. It should not be obscured by the negativity of some.
Much more is needed but the momentum is with us and movement is in the right direction.
We must also scrutinise the opportunities which the Protocol could offer Northern Ireland. Uniquely under the Protocol businesses in Northern Ireland will be able to export goods to the EU market without regulatory checks or tariffs imposed on other British businesses and export goods to GB without the regulatory checks and tariffs imposed on other EU businesses. This could attract unprecedented investment to NI, redefining the economy and multiplying employment opportunities.
These economic advantages offer a compelling argument for the maintenance of the status quo, in other words Northern Ireland remaining within the UK. In a United Ireland these advantages evaporate.
An economically vibrant and culturally rich Northern Ireland is the best counterargument to the call for a United Ireland. A homeplace characterised by partnership, equality and mutual respect (to quote the Belfast Agreement) is the most persuasive argument for Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.
By John Kyle