Fresh difficulties highlight Foster’s shift from selling the protocol to maligning it

Posted By: January 30, 2021

John Manley. Irish News .Belfast. Saturday, January 30, 2021

THERE’S predictable nationalist schadenfreude around the protocol’s impact on military movements across the Irish Sea. Its symbolism is unmatched in terms of illustrating how unionism has shot itself in the foot with Brexit-though checks on goods entering the single market could spell an ammo shortage.

The protocol, political unionism will argue, was not its idea. It was a solution forced upon Northern Ireland by Brussels, with Boris Johnson’s acquiescence.

The counter arguments are well rehearsed, however.

The inevitability of an Irish Sea border if the backstop was not adopted couldn’t have been made more obvious had it been held aloft on a painted banner and accompanied by a chorus of flutes and the pounding of a Lambeg drum.

It is nonetheless unfair to dismiss the difficulties the protocol has created for east-west trade, even though they would pale into insignificance when compared to what could’ve transpired at Ireland’s land border had Brexit meant Brexit for all of the UK.

The logistical difficulties for the British armed forces are unlikely to unduly concern the man or woman in the street – whatever their constitutional view – and they’d arguably have been non the wiser had former Royal Irish Ranger and Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie not highlighted the issue. Suggesting, as he did, that there’ll be an impact on Operation Helvetic is perhaps over-egging the matter but it’s clear that many of the teething problems associated with the protocol need urgently addressed, and not solely to assuage unionists.

Meanwhile, each difficultly that emerges makes DUP leader Arlene Foster’s efforts to sell the merits of the ‘best of both worlds’ scenario more difficult.

A month ago, during the season of goodwill, the first minister appeared resigned to the reality and spoke of the “opportunities” the protocol presented.

Having secured the desired unfettered access to the market in Britain, her role then was to “mitigate” the elements of the protocol that hindered east-west trade.

Now, however, after a weeks of hectoring from the Ulster Unionists and dissent in her own ranks she is describing the restriction on the movement of military equipment as being among “hundreds of problems” created by the protocol.

Its potential opportunities are no longer mentioned and instead the new arrangements are “completely offensive” and “running contrary to everything that we stand for”.

In many ways it was inevitable that Mrs. Foster shifted her stance because the only consistency from the DUP during the Brexit process has been its lack of foresight and an ability to turn 180 degrees while pretending nothing has changed.

The DUP’s erratic behavior and Unionism’s internal bickering have some entertainment value but it would be a mistake to think they automatically translate into nationalism’s gain. While talk of betrayal and loyalist discontent are exaggerated for selfish and political reasons, mounting problems with the protocol and unionist instability could potentially backfire on advocates of the Irish Sea border.

A degree of understanding and a collective effort to overcome the initial operational problems will send a more positive signal.