Newton Emerson: Report lays down a marker to DUP leader

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson gave a polite brush-off to a report co-authored by Jamie Bryson
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson gave a polite brush-off to a report co-authored by Jamie Bryson

With a protocol deal in prospect, unionist Brexiteers are positioning themselves for the inevitable. Particularly interesting manoeuvres have occurred around a report co-authored by Jamie Bryson.

People who find Mr Bryson’s influence ridiculous are sometimes told to be less of a snob. It also works to be more of a snob: from a sufficiently refined height, he looks no different to many figures who have influenced and been used to influence our politics over the decades, including crucial years of the peace process. You may think of your own examples.

The report, entitled Restoring Northern Ireland’s Place in the Union, was commissioned by the Centre for the Union, a think-tank set up in Westminster last year. Links to other think-tanks place it at the edge, although not quite the fringe, of the European Research Group of Conservative Brexiteers. Its ‘parliamentary chairman’ is Ian Paisley jnr, representing the DUP awkward squad, certainly as the DUP leadership would see it.

The centre’s official launch last month in parliament was attended by TUV leader Jim Allister, who is not an MP and so had made an effort to turn up. Only three of the DUP’s eight MPs were there: Mr Paisley, Paul Girvan (not to be confused with former first minister Paul Givan) and Jim Shannon, who does not count as he turns up to everything.

Also present were familiar Brexiteers Kate Hoey, Ben Habib and Daniel Moylan, all of Tory or Labour backgrounds.

Mr Bryson’s co-author is Ethan Thoburn, editor of the Bruges Group, a long-established Thatcherite think-tank.

The report has a foreword by barrister James Bogle, who represented the government in the 2017 Supreme Court case, brought by Gina Miller, requiring parliament to approve formal withdrawal from the EU.

With such legal and political expertise at its disposal, getting Mr Bryson to co-author the report looks like a determined effort by the Centre for the Union to address protest politics in Northern Ireland.

Surveying the report’s eclectic provenance, SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole described it as “a cynical attempt to drop hard-right unionist talking points into discourse”.

What that useful explanation misses is who the points are being dropped on.

The authors note their report was rushed out in “two weeks at Christmas” and its “outline” proposals are “designed to assist discussion; they are not our final views, let alone those of the Centre for the Union.”

It appears that sudden developments in protocol negotiations, which of course are conducted entirely over unionism’s head, provoked a hurried effort to lay down a marker to DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on what sort of deal is acceptable.

Brexiteer unionists also seem to be laying down markers for each other. The distinct impression from Mr Bryson is that he might settle for less than the report’s proposals. Mr Allister responded to the report by making it clear it sets out his absolute minimum requirements.

Sir Jeffrey’s response was a classic polite brush-off.

“A valuable contribution,” he tweeted. “Worthy of full consideration and debate.”

Then he referred straight back to the DUP’s ‘seven tests’ for the protocol - in other words, his unchanged position since becoming party leader 18 months ago.

The report’s actual proposals are its least interesting aspect. They will not be taken seriously by anyone else, let alone by British and European negotiators, so they scarcely matter. Their significance comes from how some unionists may spin the details to accept a protocol deal. There is wriggle room within the proposals, whether intentionally created or not, for unionism’s sovereignty concerns to be addressed by a symbolic change to the Acts of Union and some additional arbitration on the protocol’s operation both of which are achievable and would be of no harm to anyone.

Unionism’s practical concerns would largely melt away by adopting the red and green channel model of the sea border, which the report amusingly tries to re-invent as a sealed red “tunnel”, with one end in Larne and the other in Newry.

Sir Jeffrey’s bottom line, in his response to the report, was: “the protocol must be replaced by arrangements that restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and our constitutional position is respected.”

That degree of vagueness indicates the DUP leader still intends to accept a deal.

The report reveals much about the unionist reaction he will have to deal with afterwards.