Why Northern Ireland desperately needs a return to courageous pragmatism

·5-min read

The hypocrisy virus appears to be contagious.

Boris Johnson said no British prime minister could ever agree to a trade border in the Irish Sea, but then agreed to one.

The Irish government said there could never be a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but has effectively imposed one - albeit to enforce COVID-19 restrictions.

The EU claimed a land border would breach the Good Friday Agreement but ignored the fact that a sea border arguably breached the principle of consent at the heart of the agreement - that the people of Northern Ireland alone will decide their own future.

The Democratic Unionists described the EU's invoking of Article 16 - the mechanism for overriding the Northern Ireland Protocol - as "an act of aggression" but then called on Boris Johnson to invoke Article 16.

Sinn Fein fiercely opposed what it calls "the British border in Ireland" for generations but welcomed the EU's imposition of a border in the Irish Sea that no one had voted for.

Any government or political party claiming that another has been using Northern Ireland as a "political football" needs to look in the mirror.

In the battle of Brexit, Northern Ireland has been a pawn played by every side but the peace process was built on pragmatism, not on games of chess.

Unionists, nationalists, republicans and loyalists had to set their ideology aside to secure a political settlement that would end decades of violence.

Pragmatism might have given more consideration to the potential impact of Brexit on the hard-won peace and historic agreement in Northern Ireland.

Pragmatism might have produced a technological solution - a way to avoid physical checkpoints either on the land or at Northern Irish ports.

Pragmatism might have secured a majority for Theresa May's plan to keep all of the UK in the EU's customs union and avoid any contentious borders at all.

The peace is far from perfect and elements of the settlement have been particularly difficult for victims, but there are literally hundreds of people alive today who would not be had the politicians rejected pragmatism.

The not-so-subtle shift backwards to ideological thinking has the potential to bring the power-sharing government at Stormont crashing down again.

Indeed, many observers believe it would have fallen already were it not for the fact that no party wants to be seen to collapse devolution during a pandemic.

If anything has illustrated the battle between ideology and pragmatism, the devolved government's struggle to agree COVID-19 restrictions has.

But the Brexit ideology of "taking back control" ran aground in the Irish Sea when Unionists realised they were not in control of negotiations with the EU.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was an attempt by the EU and the British government to resolve the thorny issue of two jurisdictions pragmatically.

Mr Johnson appears to have conceded to a trade border in the Irish Sea on the basis that he could pretend it did not exist.

And therein lies the problem - the prime minister wrapped this attempt at pragmatism in ideological paper in the hope it would be more palatable to Unionists.

Who can forget the prime minister telling Northern Irish business leaders that any paperwork related NI-GB trade could be thrown in the bin?

But how could there not be checks? Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK remaining in the EU's single market for goods.

The DUP, which had kept the Tories in government at Westminster for two-and-a-half years, felt betrayed.

Other Unionist parties rounded on the DUP, accusing the party of having been blinded by "the bright lights of London".

The trade deal on Christmas Eve provided brief respite - allowing the DUP to change tack and talk-up the potential economic benefit of Northern Ireland having "the best of both worlds".

But the pressure returned with a vengeance when the combination of COVID-19 and Brexit led to a shortage of choice on shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets.

At the height of the "teething problems", as the government described them, some Unionists began talking about invoking Article 16.

But given the potential fall-out, it seemed a bit drastic to suggest that the British government would override the Protocol at such an early stage.

The EU's threat to invoke Article 16 to stop vaccines entering Northern Ireland - described as "a mistake" - could not have come at a worse moment.

Given that such a move created the potential for a land border, Unionists said it verified their claim that the EU had just imposed the sea border out of spite.

To put it simply, they felt it proved that the EU had made an ideological decision to make Northern Ireland the price the United Kingdom would pay for Brexit.

In a throwback to the past, the anger quickly shifted from words spoken in corridors of power to threats painted on the gable walls in loyalist areas.

You only need to look back to the Union flag protests of 2013 to be reminded of how quickly such tension can turn into civil unrest on the streets.

With loyalists describing Northern Ireland as "the sacrificial lamb" in the Brexit deal, there is an urgent need for a return to pragmatic thinking on all sides.

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Regularly undermined by the actions of her own MPs on social media, can first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster deliver?

Regularly undermined by republican funerals - in flagrant breach of COVID restrictions - can deputy first minister and deputy Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill deliver?

If ever there was a moment for the British and Irish governments to step up, it is now. The east-west pillar of the Good Friday Agreement needs to bear weight.

This is not an ideological issue - there are real people of all persuasions, real businesses across Northern Ireland, crying out for a pragmatic solution.

The greater good - stable peace and stable politics - does not require there to be an ideological winner or loser. It requires courageous pragmatism.