Fionnuala O Connor: Same old questions face unionist leaders

In the hyped-up Windsor Framework, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been handed a draft acceptance speech
In the hyped-up Windsor Framework, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been handed a draft acceptance speech

Amendments to the law that enacted the Good Friday Agreement would ‘provide constitutional and democratic guarantees for the people of Northern Ireland’. Boris Johnson is ‘a great man, a wise man, an honest man, with 100 per cent integrity’. Both of those statements came from Chris Heaton-Harris, presently Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and in the past chairman of Brexit far-out purists the ERG. 

The amendments promise instantly worried Queen’s University Professor of Human Rights Law Colin Harvey, who has earned his anxiety as QUB magnet for unionist anti-Agreement, anti-equality law agitation. But Johnson an honest man, great, wise? The current British prime minister wants to save the Tories from electoral disaster, which means trying to write Johnson – and the DUP – out of the record. It’s over. Downing Street partying popped back into the news at the perfect moment. 

Rishi Sunak said Eat Out to Help Out and thus may have inadvertently boosted a wave of Covid infection. He followed H-Harris with his own promise to deport ‘small-boats’ people, playing to the racism that leading Tories of immigrant parents so disgustingly abet. Sunak has also delivered – at least for Conservatives – an answer to the impossible demand that the UK breaking with Europe should cause no NI trade restrictions. 

In the hyped-up Windsor Framework, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been handed a draft acceptance speech. He should say that thanks to the principled pestering of unionists the protocol has been changed utterly, and Northern Ireland is now a unique marketing space – as he and Arlene Foster argued long ago. Although of course Donaldson will want this clarified and that amended. The rest of us may be required to zip lips even if laughter comes out of our ears. Shouldn’t be difficult. The spectacle of two political parties having serial breakdowns is punishment they deserve but not a big laugh. Leaving the EU is unequalled in British history as self-inflicted harm.

Arrogance and half-baked ideology conquered judgement. Johnson and clownish negotiator David Frost ignored the reality of relative negotiating strengths. The political bill for the Tories begins; five leaders, so five prime ministers, since 2016, three leaders, three PMs, in the last year alone. Emotional remorse and second thoughts from people whose public selves required strong assertions is evidence of turmoil. 

Self-described ‘hard man of Brexit’ Steve Baker tearfully detailed his breakdown on RTÉ. Deirdre Heenan, a regular in these pages, was properly tart: what about the damage Brexit had done to ‘the rest of us’? 

The DUP’s three leaders inside three months have left an already demoralised organisation split between entitled MPs who say whatever they like and MLA underdogs required to stay out of the one forum in which they matter. Which gives them a good income by NI standards. 

While Wilson and Paisley posture and sashay painfree from their personal fiefdoms, DUP MLAs are thinking about their seats. And did Jim Allister suddenly look older and smaller on TV, pleading ‘play the ball’ to that tall young Alliance woman? 

One long view suggests that Britain, having given little thought to Ireland north or south in setting out on their Brexit adventure, the EU invisible across the border, is once again wrestling painfully with ‘the Irish Question’. My eye. Tory party breakdown plus post-Brexit economic woes impelled the Sunak move. Time to leave battles with the EU behind, the DUP roadkill in the rear mirror. 

Pick a fight now with Leo Varadkar? Hardly. ‘We’ll be guided by the DUP’ is as bogus now as it was under Johnson. Time for another stall or time to face reality – the questions facing the supposed leaders of political unionism are as they were 50 years ago.

And we who also live here, the rest of us? When we were still ‘cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks, besieged within the siege, whispering morse’ Seamus Heaney sang it out: ‘I live here, I live here too’. No more confinement, steady nerves in Spring sunshine.