The Tories pledged there would be no checks at the Northern Irish border. But the gap between rhetoric and reality is becoming increasingly stark
It has always been clear since the Brexit deal was inked in the autumn of last year that there would have to be some form of check on goods coming into Northern Ireland, says Andrew McQuillan | PA Images
The laying of foundations of new facilities which will be required to process goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will be yet another blow to the Conservative’s flagging unionist bona fides
True to that old Churchillian cliché about dreary steeples reappearing on the horizon, amid the political focus on the response to coronavirus the twin towers of the Northern Irish border and Brexit have once again come into view.
Earlier this week at a meeting of Stormont’s Executive Scrutiny Committee, the Sinn Fein Minister Declan Kearney said that border posts are to be created to deal with inward trade to Northern Ireland from Great Britain and that “delivery on that infrastructure needs to start as soon as possible”. Letters accepting this point have also been exchanged between the UK and EU.
It has always been clear since the Brexit deal was inked in the autumn of last year that there would have to be some form of check on goods coming into Northern Ireland, yet Kearney’s comments have raised the hackles of unionists angered that the “border down the sea” will be located in Northern Irish ports such as Larne and Belfast.
Many have shrugged their shoulders, concluding that Kearney’s comments were far from revelatory; this somewhat misses the point.
The comments clash with statements from the British Government that there will not be a border down the Irish Sea, something repeated by the Northern Irish Secretary Brandon Lewis both in Parliament and to the Northern Irish media in recent days.
Yet the gap between rhetoric and reality is increasingly stark.
The laying of the foundations at the new facilities which will be required to process the goods will be yet another blow to the Conservative’s flagging unionist bona fides and is another dent to the Prime Minister’s credibility; a penny for the thoughts of those Northern Irish businesspeople who feature in a clip which has reappeared on social media in which the Prime Minister tells them there would be no need to fill in any customs forms.
Whether the Conservatives are particularly fussed about this is a moot point. There was an illustrative moment this week when Simon Hoare, Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, dismissed an attempt by the DUP’s Gregory Campbell to ask Brandon Lewis about the “sea border”, claiming it a “tangential” issue.
12 months ago Campbell and his colleagues were darlings of the ERG et al, now their concerns are an afterthought.
The debate around whether the DUP wasted its leverage at Westminster from 2017 to 2019 is a valid one.
However, it is worth noting that many of those who took on an activist role regarding the economic and social impacts of an Irish land border are now complaining equally hard about the prospect of this arrangement between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Brexit is of course the root of this vexatious issue, but there have been plenty of people who have shepherded Northern Ireland along the road to this state of limbo.
That aside, it cannot be doubted that unionists are now twisting in the wind.
Amid the fire and brimstone from some quarters that greeted Kearney’s intervention, there was an admission from the Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken that in his view, an “Irish Sea border is now a certainty”. Less “never, never, never”, more resigned acceptance.
However, there appears to be an expectation from sections of unionism that the fight against this must go on.
Indeed, Kearney said that the Government “will urgently put in place detailed plans with the Executive”, a point which was picked up by Jim Allister, the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice and a thorny bete noire in the side of establishment unionism.
The Executive – which includes both the DUP and UUP - will have some role to play in this new normal. If they are seen to be facilitating this then as Allister points out, it will “test the mettle of unionists”.
With the locus of power having definitively shifted away from Belfast, the DUP’s objective will likely be on damage limitation with regards to the obtrusiveness of these arrangements.
There are obvious economic incentives yet from the perspective of self-preservation, failure to do so will only further alienate some unionists and indeed loyalists already nursing a sense of betrayal. Barring a change in fortunes – or indeed an extension – it is likely there will be some explaining to do come January 2021.
Andrew McQuillan works in public affairs and writes extensively on Northern Ireland