Stormont is sinking. It is taking in water from all sides and one honestly wonders, how long can it really stay afloat? Problems with the Protocol are intensifying and it may prove too much for Stormont to endure.

Three Unionist leaders have already jumped overboard (two were pushed), and suggestions of a “long hot summer” loom large in the background. The DUP have changed leadership once again, but just as it was with Poots, unless there is a drastic change of approach it will do nothing to calm the waters.

It is in everyone’s interest of course to have a functioning Executive that makes necessary decisions and provides stability. As we emerge from the pandemic, the need for an effective Stormont has arguably never been greater. Not to mention the catalogue of other issues which still need to be addressed (education, health, housing etc.).

That being said, Unionist and Loyalist discontent towards our political structures and lack of political reaction to the Protocol has led some to conclude that Stormont’s time is up – and they may be right.

The sentiment has been born, in my opinion, from two interrelated factors. First, there is an intense feeling of fatigue toward our political structures. Many Unionists are fed up with institutions that depend on repeated concessions to Nationalism and the continual rewarding of Sinn Fein’s ransom politics. Like a merry-go-round, Stormont only seems to keep spinning if Unionism pays the concession meter. There is only so long that approach can be sustained.

The second factor, in my view, is a growing sense of political powerlessness to overcome key issues facing Unionism today. Three body blows to Unionism have left their mark – the Northern Ireland Protocol; failure to hold Sinn Fein accountable for Bobby Storey’s funeral; and a forthcoming Westminster intervention on Irish language. 

These three setbacks, in quick succession, have left many within Unionism questioning the utility of the Northern Ireland Assembly. What is the point in this Assembly if your representatives, and by implication your community, are repeatedly and unfairly circumvented on important issues? One Loyalist I spoke to summed up the feeling when she said, “If Stormont does not work for Unionism, why should Unionism work for Stormont?”

For years however, Unionism has paid the fee, and often tried to conceal its concessions to Sinn Fein behind a veil of pragmatism. “Coalitions can only exist through compromise and co-operation,” they say, arguing that in order to keep the lights on at Stormont, everyone has to give a little. What has Unionism gained from this “coalition of compromise?” Moreover, what has Sinn Fein ever had to concede?

In Northern Ireland’s centennial year, the Stormont Executive could not muster as much as a single penny toward centenary celebrations. Sinn Fein in particular, vetoed a commemorative centenary stone and could not even bring itself to allow the token gesture of a centenary rose in Stormont estate.

Furthermore, it remains a mystery, that in this culture of relentless virtue signalling, our entire Northern Ireland Executive continue to look the other way and silently swallow the very much downplayed and inexcusably ignored 2015 PSNI/MI5 assessment, that the illegal Provisional Army Council still oversee Sinn Fein and the PIRA – according to PIRA members.

Why doesn’t our Executive demand a public inquiry, or at least further clarification on the PSNI security assessment, into the role and relationship of Sinn Fein with the PIRA? Is this yet another compromise just to keep the show on the road?

It begs the question, at what point do you draw the line and say “enough is enough?” At what point do your principles triumph over your pragmatism? Surely you can only toe the line for so long trying to make things work, before accepting that this system of governance, within our calamitous context, cannot continue? For many within the Loyalist community, the line was crossed some time ago.

The introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol is sending shockwaves throughout the Unionist and Loyalist community. At all levels of government there is unanimous Unionist rejection of it. It has led to sporadic grassroots protests all over Northern Ireland as Loyalists demonstrate their anger at what is rightly viewed as an injustice. These protests will only grow in size and frequency while the Protocol remains.

What many fail to understand, including some of our politicians, is that the Protocol attacks the heart and soul of the constitutional nature of Northern Ireland. By impliedly repealing the Act of Union 1800, the cornerstone upon which the Union was founded, the constitutional ramifications are severe.

Not for a moment has this arrangement ever been acceptable to the Unionist and Loyalist community. It is an indictment on our political leaders if at any point they misled the international movers and shakers into thinking it could be. It is political Unionism’s failure to demonstrate this intolerance which has led to the grassroots community having to demonstrate it for themselves.

Contrast for a moment Sinn Fein’s reaction to delays over Irish language with political Unionism’s response to the Protocol.

Without a hint of hesitation, Sinn Fein ministers threatened to collapse Stormont arguing there was, “no basis for power-sharing,” without Irish language legislation. Yet only now, six months after the annexation of Northern Ireland, and in response to British Government promises of movement on the Protocol, the DUP suddenly start talking tough and threaten to walk away from Stormont. Is it any wonder grassroots Loyalism/Unionism are demanding more?

Elements of political Unionism appear more concerned about standing up for devolution than standing up for the Union. In doing so, they are complicit in the problem, not the solution.

Ironically, Sinn Fein were right to say there is no basis for power-sharing. Not because New Decade New Approach had been delayed, but because the 1998 Peace Agreement has been destroyed.

The Protocol brings with it a fundamental constitutional shift in Northern Ireland without consent and overrides the cross-community support principle in Strand 1:5 (d) on the 1998 Agreement. If the Protocol set out to protect the Peace Agreement, it has undeniably failed.

When asked what businesses should do with customs declaration forms for moving goods across the Irish Sea, the Prime Minister told them to “throw the form in the bin.” The only document that has been binned thus far however is the 1998 Peace Agreement. What really needs “thrown in the bin” is the Northern Ireland Protocol, and until the Prime Minister does so, there is no basis for power-sharing.

By Moore Holmes