Unionism is now split and much diminished

Back to direct rule

Though Boris Johnson has every interest in promoting one clash with Brussels after another, now there is the war in Ukraine and the coming struggle with China. Kevin Bean puts arguments over the Northern Ireland protocol into their wider strategic context

After the brief excitements of an electoral war of manoeuvre, we seem to be back to the more usual war of position in Northern Irish politics.

The Northern Ireland Assembly elections broadly produced the expected result - Sinn Féin became the largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party was demoted into second spot, while the Alliance Party ‘surged’ into third place. Despite talk of a momentous political shift in the Six Counties, the days after May 5 also seemed pretty much as predicted - the DUP refused to nominate a deputy first minister, or even support a speaker, when the new assembly met: no new executive could be formed, so Northern Ireland remains without a devolved government and under direct rule.1

The sticking point for the DUP and the unionist parties in general is the Northern Ireland protocol that keeps the Six Counties in the European Union’s single market for goods and creates a customs border in the Irish Sea.2 Unionist objections to this ‘undermining’ of links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom have been well rehearsed since the Brexit withdrawal treaty was signed in 2020. Following the standard political choreography that had been perfected during so many crises over the years, Boris Johnson flew to Belfast for talks with the various parties to ‘restore devolution’, but the DUP stuck to its position and so the standoff continues.3 With this seeming impasse about the protocol, it’s goodbye to the dreary steeples for a while, as attention has now shifted to the wider diplomatic plane of London, Brussels and Washington.4

This renewed diplomatic focus on the chancelleries of the EU has a wearingly familiar feel to it: we have been here before with the tortuous negotiation of the withdrawal agreement and related arrangements in the years following the Brexit referendum in 2016.5 Thus foreign secretary Liz Truss’s suggestion that Britain might unilaterally “rip up parts of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland” is an echo of similar language and earlier threats made by Boris Johnson’s government since 2019.6 Likewise the response of the EU seems also to follow the playbook. Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president in charge of Brexit negotiations, replied that the EU will respond with “all the measures at its disposal” if Britain goes ahead with its plan to abandon parts of the protocol.7 Given the belligerent tone and seemingly entrenched positions of all sides, it seems on the face of it that we could be in for many months of threats, brinkmanship and negotiations about ‘fixing’ the protocol, as Liz Truss put it in her May 17 speech in the Commons.8

New elements

However, if we stand back a bit and look at the real positions and interests of the various actors, and the strategies they might pursue, we see some significant new elements and dynamics in the situation.

Let us start with the bit-part players in the Six Counties: despite apparently being at the centre of things, their interests are really peripheral to the governments and politicians who will make the decisions. The DUP is hoping that the Johnson government will produce some face-saving changes to the protocol it can present to its supporters as a triumph for the party’s staunch opposition.9 Depending on the time scale of negotiations, the DUP hopes to go into a fresh election in the autumn, bank the gains of a renegotiated deal with the EU, see off the challenge to its right from the Traditional Unionist Voice and regain its position as the largest party at Stormont, without having to suffer the indignity of playing second fiddle to Sinn Féin in a restored executive.

Pinning your hopes on the bona fides of the Johnson government seems to be a somewhat risky strategy - the triumph of hope over very recent experience. But for the DUP and unionism more generally, their weakened position offers a limited set of options and they must make the best of a very bad job indeed.

Sinn Féin likes to suggest it plays a strategically sophisticated long game, waiting for the pieces to fall into place. Like the DUP, its ‘transitional’ strategy also relies on external actors, albeit in Dublin, Brussels and Washington rather than Westminster. However, its growing electoral strength in the Six Counties and possible entry into government south of the border has increased its political leverage. Unlike Sir Geoffrey Donaldson, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill believe they can afford to wait on events to swing their way.

The key actors are, of course, the British government, the EU and above all the world hegemon, the US; and the key dynamics are the fundamental geopolitical shifts revealed by the war in Ukraine. The conflict between the US, its Nato client states and Russia is the prelude to a wider global conflict between the declining US hegemon and its Chinese challenger, which will frame political, military and economic conflicts internationally in the coming decades.

In the case of the Northern Ireland protocol, this is not a mere abstraction or a distant connection. The states playing a role in the proxy war in Ukraine are also directly involved in the current stalemate in Northern Ireland, so, whilst in the great scheme of things the US, the EU and Britain are focused on the war in Ukraine, there is very obviously a clear link between the politics of the Six Counties and this wider geopolitical context. The political and strategic interests of the US in Ireland as a whole meant that it played a key role in the peace process and the post-Good Friday Agreement dispensation. This has remained the case under the Biden presidency, with the US directly intervening in the current impasse through the visit of a prominent congressman, Richard Neal, to Ireland, Britain and the EU.10

As the war in Ukraine has shown, Nato and the EU remain essential elements in US strategy: the US has reasserted its control, brought France and Germany to heel, and so corralled ‘Europe’ behind its proxy war in Ukraine. Because preserving that coalition and maintaining US hegemony is of supreme importance, it is likely that the weight of the American state will be thrown behind a solution to the protocol problem that keeps the EU intact, yet allows Britain to save face.

The reorientation of US policy back towards Europe in the post-Trump period is combined with something of a rapprochement between Biden and the Johnson government. Britain has proved its worth to the US during the Ukraine war and Biden will not want to choose between the EU and Britain over the protocol. In attempting to resolve that issue all the major players are keenly aware of how dramatically the geopolitical balance has shifted and how the certainties of even two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal agreement, have changed. ‘Global Britain’ has diplomatically and strategically returned to the fold and, despite the rhetoric, has increasingly attempted to seek economic and political stability by orientating towards the EU and diving in enthusiastically to lead the European charge against Russia and China.


If the broad strategic interests of the US, Britain and the EU are now once again closely aligned, political complications still remain, not least within the internal politics of the EU and Britain. The tensions caused by the ‘eastern bloc’ of member states, the particular interests of individual states like Ireland and the concerns about preserving the single market and the role of the European Court of Justice will clearly have an impact on any proposed revision of the protocol. While it is unwise to make predictions, it is likely that the need for unity in facing off Russia and China and the direct intervention of the US will ensure that a satisfactory compromise between Britain and the EU will eventually be achieved.

Greater uncertainties surround the political dynamics within Britain itself, however. Potential rivals to Johnson’s position within the cabinet have clearly used the protocol as a way to challenge and undermine his leadership: Liz Truss is said to be almost permanently on manoeuvres and this could yet play a part in the eventual outcome of any negotiations.11 Likewise there have also been suggestions within Tory circles that Johnson may try to regain the initiative within his party and amongst the electorate by renewing the winning ‘Get Brexit done’ formula and initiating a staged clash with the EU over the protocol as part of a strategy for an autumn election.12

This is, of course, all highly speculative, but the nature of Johnson’s Tory Party and his own record of personal and political opportunism means that such a strategy cannot be ruled out. However, British interests in Northern Ireland favour stability and certainty, as do the wider geopolitical concerns of the US, Nato and the EU. Taken together with the compelling logic of the war in Ukraine and growing great-power rivalry, a solution to the outstanding issues surrounding the protocol will be found. If the faces of the important local actors in the Six Counties can be saved, all well and good.

However, whatever happens in the long run, it will be the interests of the British government and the strategic imperatives of its allies that will be paramount in the minds of the Tories - not the electoral dilemmas of the DUP or the complaints of unionist ultras.

  1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-61427418.↩︎

  2. www.economist.com/britain/the-northern-ireland-protocol-could-soon-spark-a-new-row-between-britain-and-europe/21809226.↩︎

  3. www.ft.com/content/0672dec7-ef91-410a-9da6-aa93e9d635ae.↩︎

  4. www.ft.com/content/1390c053-2740-40c6-9e4e-525f7c4cad71.↩︎

  5. Even the headlines about ‘deadlock’ have remained the same! See, for example: www.ft.com/content/fa647608-53b4-40ba-9443-6df25f6418f8.↩︎

  6. www.ft.com/content/28c63082-5160-42b9-a393-be3da8651534.↩︎

  7. www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2022/may/17/northern-ireland-protocol-brexit-liz-truss-boris-johnson-uk-politics-latest.↩︎

  8. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-61475899.↩︎

  9. www.irishnews.com/paywall/tsb/irishnews/irishnews/irishnews//news/analysis/2022/05/18/news/analysis-usual-empty-rhetoric-paves-way-for-a-climbdown-2714154/content.html.↩︎

  10. www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/may/17/eu-raises-spectre-trade-war-if-uk-rewrites-northern-ireland-protocol.↩︎

  11. www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/may/10/liz-truss-preparing-to-tear-up-northern-ireland-protocol-reports.↩︎

  12. www.spectator.co.uk/article/boriss-plans-for-a-new-brexit-clash.↩︎