I was in the south of England as the recent fuel crisis hit, when many petrol stations ran out of fuel and closed. Stuck in Bath, I drove around the city looking for one that was open, then drove to nearby Chippenham where Google Maps was telling me that there were a number of stations open. All were closed so I decided the best thing to do was to drive North, where I was heading to the ferry at Stranraer that would take me home. My wife had cancer treatment the day after next and we really didn’t want to miss it – the treatment is keeping her alive. I was able to get petrol on the M4 and then headed North via the M5, filling up again in a Motorway service station north of Lancaster.
So, we got home safe and sound and to the sight of petrol stations in Belfast with lots of fuel and no queues. Buying the local Irish papers in order to get up to speed on the local scene I read speculation that the Tories were going to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a means of getting rid of it, although it doesn’t actually do this, on the grounds that the Protocol gives rise to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”
Since unionists have been declaring a crisis and organising protests that have managed to mobilise only hundreds of protestors; and trade between the North and South of Ireland has grown dramatically, albeit from a low base, their strained narrative has claimed that the grounds for unilateral action by the British to trigger Article 16 exists.
I thought to myself, if only the Article applied to Britain, where trade with the EU has fallen; ports are clogged up; goods are sent to Rotterdam and Antwerp before being unloaded and re-loaded onto smaller vessels so they can be taken to England; the shortage of lorry drivers has led to restrictions on the supply of goods with even more knock-on effects due soon; the shortage of other workers has led to a culling of animals and the shortage of all these workers has led to approval for recruitment of foreign drivers and butchers – a clear reversal of the rationale for Brexit.
But still Article 16 is waved as a magic sovereignty wand that derives its power from being a unilateral action that needs no EU negotiation or agreement, although the foresight of a goldfish is required in order to overlook that it leads to both.
The growing crisis caused by Brexit has been answered by louder and louder bellicose rhetoric, especially by Lord Frost. This rhetoric is all the more raucus because Britain has few cards to play; the opposition(?) Labour Party is silent so the high pitch is only necessary to divert attention from real events. Even so, Frost finds himself admitting that the British were compelled to agree to the NI Protocol because of a weak bargaining position – one glint of truth in a trough of bullshit and deception. On this score not much has changed so rhetoric substitutes for real power. The response to the driver shortage demonstrates this.
Not only has the British government had to beg foreign lorry drivers to return, having just told them to get lost (why would they come back?), but rules on the number of internal deliveries that foreign companies can carry out when delivering into Britain have been relaxed while the British Road Haulage industry complains that they cannot avail of the same rights when delivering into the EU. Just like Brussels enforcing Single Market restrictions on British exports to the EU but London still not able to enforce restrictions on EU exports to Britain.
Unionist opposition also reveals its weakness not just in low numbers protesting or the absence of any queues at petrol stations, but through plummeting support for the DUP, now down to 13% from over 31% in the December 2019 Westminster election. With Sinn Fein now the largest party it is in line to nominate the First Minister after new Assembly elections scheduled for May.
In the latest poll the DUP is the third largest unionist party, although what matters most is the division in unionism caused by the DUP collapse. Its leader Jeffrey Donaldson has attempted to reverse this by relying on Johnson to get him a better deal, in itself a terrible admission of weakness (relying on the guy who shafted you in the first place) and also by attempting to get the rest of unionism to own the failure.
So, when I arrived back from England I came back to a joint article in the ‘Irish Times’ by Donaldson and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, plus a joint statement by the ‘four main unionist leaders’ with a video to accompany it. One I didn’t bother to watch.
The ‘Irish Times’ article was a joint statement of opposition to the Protocol by Donaldson who declares he wants it scraped because it contradicts the Belfast Agreement (which he originally opposed) and by Allister who has never supported it.
The joint statement and video to the unionist public proved only that you really can have too many leaders. The motivation for Donaldson is obvious – ‘I may have helped get you into this mess but all the rest are now just as responsible for getting you out of it’. For the Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie all his claims to be modernising his party and putting clear blue water between him and the DUP is exposed to ridicule as he stands beside the even more extreme TUV.
The contradictions for the TUV in uniting with supporters of the Stormont administration that it never ceases to denounce are obvious but matter less. If the campaign fails the TUV can still blame the DUP and if it can be portrayed as any sort of victory they can own part of it. The loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson is there to show that loyalist paramilitarism and its own particular means of exerting influence are part of the family, to be ostracised when embarrassing but embraced as a delinquent brother if required. For Billy Hutchinson, he gets to wear a suit for the day out and a boost to mainstream credibility that has been less frequent of late.
Where there does appear to be some genuine unity is revealed in one of the opinion poll‘s other findings, which recorded that 79% think the performance of Johnson and his NI Secretary is bad or awful.
Forward to part 2