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Colum Eastwood understands unionism's protocol concerns but believes British government will let them down

As unionists continue to voice dissatisfaction over the post-Brexit trade arrangements, Political Correspondent John Manley talks to Colum Eastwood about the protocol and the possibilities for his party and Irish unity

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Picture by Hugh Russell

COLUM Eastwood says he understands unionist angst around the Irish Sea trade border, yet he also believes that concerns around identity and the availability of goods are "exaggerated".

"I understand it, I genuinely do," the SDLP leader says when asked about political unionism's opposition to the protocol.

However, he is clear where the blame lies for the situation that has sparked the recent sporadic street protests and rioting earlier this year.

"They’ve been let down again by the British government and I would say to them that the people arguing against the imposition of borders were people like myself and others, while those who were arguing for them were people like the DUP," he says.

"They are checks on goods, there’s no implication for your British identity, and actually, a united Ireland comes about when people vote for it."

He notes the oft-cited notion that unionism fails to recognise its victories, such as nationalists conceding the principle of consent in 1998.

“Unionism needs to come up with a positive vision for being part of the union rather than unionist politicians constantly finding difficulties," he says.

The Foyle MP maintains that the vexed issues around Brexit are "the same as it was on the day after the referendum in 2016".

"You cannot square the circle where you avoid a hard border in Ireland and that Northern Ireland can be a full part of the Brexit envisaged by Brexiteers and elements of the DUP - it is incompatible," he says.

"If people are concerned about trade and getting their packages now, imagine what it would be like if we closed that border – because that’s what people are talking about."

He argues that the Boris Johnson and Lord Frost could have avoided the present difficulties by keeping Britain in the customs union and single market but that they chose "doing trade deals with places like Australia" ahead of unionist concerns.

"The unionist concern isn’t compatible with the British intention, and I think they’ll be let down again," he says.

The SDLP leader believes pressure from Washington may help resolve the impasse.

“The British government needs to think long and hard about the geopolitical implications of this because the US administration is standing behind the position that while the protocol is imperfect and cumbersome, it’s as a result of Brexit and has to be implemented," he says.

"In the end, does Boris Johnson really want to pick a fight with Joe Biden over this?"

It's widely acknowledged that the fallout from Brexit has given fresh momentum to efforts to secure a united Ireland but Mr Eastwood and the SDLP are regarded as more cautious than republicans in terms of a timescale for a border poll.

"The policy is do the work first and I honestly believe that is the right approach – building the case, listening to unionist concerns," he says, pointing to his party's recently established New Ireland Commission as an example of doing the groundwork

He concedes, as former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has suggested, that there could be a unity referendum before the end of the decade but adds that he "worries about the rush to set a time when we are clearly not ready".

“I want to win a border poll – I don’t want to have two or three border polls – I want to win it and win it well," he says.

"But it’s not just about winning a referendum, it’s about building a nation and in order to do that you have to bring as many people with you, you have to have all the arguments made and be able to answer the questions that people will throw at you. I don’t get the border poll now argument."

The Foyle MP believes that his generation has an unprecedented opportunity to deliver a united Ireland.

"But it’s a burden as well – so you have to do it right, you can’t mess it up.

"If we had a border poll tomorrow and we were badly beaten, that would put the chances of a new Ireland off and put the timescale back further, so we either want to do this right or we want to posture and I’m not interested in posturing, I’m interested in delivering."

The SDLP leader unambiguously advocates the establishment of a Dublin government-led citizens' assembly to examine Ireland's constitutional future, a move so far resisted by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, whose main cross-border initiative is the Shared Island Unit.

"You want to look at what happened around some other difficult issues in the south that the politicians didn’t grapple with because they thought public was was in one place when they were in a totally other place," he says.

"I think the public are very good at dealing with these kind of things. I’m absolutely in favour of a citizens’ assembly and lots of other models of civic engagement that we could roll in – and do it now."

Mr Eastwood says the taoiseach "knows what I think about it".

"To be fair to taoiseach he has set up the Shared Island Unit, all of us would like it to go further and faster, but he’s also put hundreds of millions of pounds in a bank account for all-Ireland, cross-border projects - that never happened before," he says.

"That will end up being a very important foundational block in the next few years as we build towards the referendum."

He says it's essential to involve as many people and groups as possible in the constitutional conversation but that it ultimately has to "come from government".

"It doesn’t mean the border poll is going to be next week but it does mean an all-Ireland civic forum, involving as many people as possible, led by the Irish government," he says.

The taoiseach's Shared Island Unit, according to the SDLP leader, is one of the main fruits of a 'policy partnership' launched with Fianna Fáil two-and-a-half years ago.

While he is satisfied with the unit's work, he admits that the tie-up with Mr Martin's party hasn't developed as anticipated, with a degree of disaffection around the partnership from within the SDLP's own ranks.

"Things change, contexts change but we’re satisfied that the relationship is good and that we’ve been able to deliver for people of the ground."

Of his party's own fortunes, he is optimistic, pointing to more than 1,000 new members in recent months, which he believes will translate into additional seats at next year's assembly election.

"I'm very positive about our position and about where we’re going," he says.

"For the first time we’re taking seats back from people and that hasn’t happened in a long time."

He maintains that the public is growing disillusioned with Stormont's status quo, with devolution a "by-word for disfunction". He also declines to rule out a further stint in opposition once Covid no longer dominates the political discourse.

"Our involvement in any government is based on what we can do for people but there are a lot of commitments is New Decade New Approach that haven’t been delivered," he says.

"So we’ll look at that again - we won’t be going into another government that promises stuff and doesn’t deliver."

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