Strategic errors by DUP have weakened Northern Ireland’s place in the UK

Posted By: February 17, 2021

George Workman. Mornington, Co Meath. Letters to Editor. Irish News. Wednesday, February 17. 2021.


Some now refer to the UK as a failed state. The pernicious impact of Brexit and Covid-19 have weakened the bonds uniting its four components. Post-Brexit talk of UK disintegration focuses on the immediate risk of Scottish independence. However, this narrative also includes Northern Ireland.


The NI Protocol was the awkward compromise of the recent UK/EU Brexit agreement to prevent a hard border in Ireland. It keeps NI within the EU Customs Union and Single Market. This may gradually erode its legal and commercial links with GB. The onset of Brexit has clearly demonstrated the trajectory of travel from the UK towards the EU.


The historical flow is towards Irish reunification. However, despite recent demographic changes and the negative impact of Brexit on nationalist sentiments in NI, polling does not suggest an imminent majority for a united Ireland.


Strategic errors by the DUP have undoubtedly further weakened NI’s place in the UK. They just cannot read the game.


The DUP initially enthusiastically backed Brexit in the most jingoistic manner but has subsequently opposed every type of Brexit. This included Theresa May’s relatively soft withdrawal agreement which maintained the integrity of the union. Instead, in a disastrous miscalculation, they bet the bank on alignment with the unreliable Boris Johnson and the delusional ERG. This later group of little Englanders is seemingly fixated on the idea of a “global Britain”. This resonates with the historical Elizabethan era of English explorers and privateers such as Francis Drake sailing off in his Golden Hind to circumnavigate the globe and arriving home with ships laden down with treasure.


Johnson eventually signed up to a hard Brexit which required a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. This outcome was presented as a fait accompli and came as a complete surprise to the myopic DUP. However, anyone following the negotiations should not have been surprised. The EU held all the aces. It has a much larger market than the UK, and Britain accounts for only 17 percent of EU trade while the EU accounts for 45 percent of UK trade. It was also playing hardball and was keen to exploit its advantage. Consequently, it set three preconditions prior to even commencing the Brexit talks. They included the NI backstop and a demand for a financial withdrawal settlement. Some Brexiteers told the EU to “go whistle”. However, the UK government soon capitulated and conceded all of the pre-requisites.


It should also have been obvious that an effective UK/EU frontier was essential to protect the EU Single Market. A land border in Ireland was impractical from a political, security, and practical standpoint. It was strongly opposed by not only the EU but also by the US Congress on the basis of safeguarding the GFA. The Sea Border was the logical location for this frontier,


The DUP response to this fiasco is also depressingly familiar. Some have taken out their inner demagogue and bellowed betrayal with claims of food shortages, as opposed to the loss of certain products, in the most inflammatory language. They unrealistically demand the suspension of the protocol.


This may be tactically astute, but it is very short-term. There is a commercial advantage in NI having access to both the UK & EU single markets. This could be sold as a significant economic benefit of the province. It is strategically much better to make the “best of both worlds” argument for the Union. This means easing tensions, not provoking them. A shrewd, nuanced Unionist response is required or the Union will surely perish. The DUP urgently requires a rendezvous with reality.