If anyone in unionism has a cunning plan, now’s the time to produce it - Alex Kane

With a general election nearing, what does unionism do next?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Jamie Bryson says the incoming DUP deputy first minister will be “debasing themselves” by becoming joint head of an administration with a legal duty to build and operate border posts.
The loyalist said that whoever in the party accepted that role would be “implementing the subjugation of the Acts of Union”.

In a fiery speech in Moygashel Orange hall, he rounded on Sir Jeffrey Donaldson whom he said would struggle to convince grassroots unionists to support his deal when he couldn’t even convince his party colleague Lord Dodds.
With unionism in disarray, expect more anti-protocol rallies in Orange halls to become a regular feature (Pacemaker)

Writing in this column on February 5, just after the assembly had been rebooted and the Command Paper published, I wrote: “The biggest headache for Donaldson will be around the Command Paper’s supposed guarantees on strengthening and safeguarding the union for the future.

“The real reason unionists were unsettled by the protocol and framework was the sense that their citizenship within the UK was being diluted... and that’s why guarantees about the union will come to matter a great deal. The Command Paper is a bit vague (so) what it all looks like when it is presented in hard legislative form will be crucial to continuing support for Donaldson and the DUP.”

Well, the DUP discovered on Monday how well the Command Paper protected their interests. It didn’t: and that’s because the High Court in Belfast ruled that the Rwanda legislation applies only to GB and not to NI, because it would breach the terms and conditions of the Windsor Framework.

A couple of weeks ago some unionists and loyalists were laughing at the ‘flood’ of refugees escaping the Rwanda legislation by fleeing to Ireland; and some were even suggesting that the Irish put in place a hard border. Now they are fearful of an immigration border being added to the sea border and of refugees settling in NI because the Rwanda legislation doesn’t apply here.

The DUP is, of course, complaining of being let down by the UK government again (while quietly praying that the UK Supreme Court will — which seems unlikely to me — rule in their favour). Does there come a point, I wonder, when the DUP realises that being shafted by the government is something it should take for granted? Let’s be honest, I can’t even remember the last time a Conservative government did anything the DUP — or even UUP — hoped it would do.

Meanwhile, the TUV and others in the anti-Donaldson Deal camp are having a bit of a field day, insisting that they have been vindicated in their opposition to the DUP’s U-turn. They want the DUP MLAs, led by Sammy Wilson and Nigel Dodds from Westminster, to force the collapse of the assembly and... .actually I don’t know the end of that sentence. If there were the merest whiff of a viable and deliverable alternative to the present mess then yes, maybe some sort of new pressure would work. But there isn’t, so it won’t.

The legal challenges to the protocol and framework have failed. The electoral challenges have failed. The strategy challenges have failed. The political challenges have failed. The nod-and-a-wink understandings between the DUP and the ERG and successive PMs have failed. The anti-protocol rallies have failed. The bids at unionist unity have failed. If anyone — and I really do mean anyone — in unionism has a cunning plan in their back pocket then now would be a good time to produce it.

The legal challenges to the protocol and framework have failed. The electoral challenges have failed. The strategy challenges have failed. The political challenges have failed...

That being the case, what will unionism do during the run-up to the general election (and during the marching season, too)? I think we’ll see more Orange Hall meetings with guest speakers from Reform UK and the TUV, along with more open-air meetings to which local bands will be invited (to swell the numbers, if nothing else). And from those platforms expect to hear a lot of brutal attacks on the DUP and UUP.

The DUP will, I suspect, remain in the assembly, all the while promising to keep the pressure on Rishi Sunak and hoping that Labour will win a handsome victory and, if nothing else, be less chaotic and dissembling than the Conservatives have been since 2016. The party will also keep challenging the TUV to produce the alternatives rather than just split the unionist vote and hand seats to both Alliance and SF. I’m not sure Jim Allister cares all that much about the DUP losing seats. He’s a purist, the sort of purist who will not help ‘protocol implementers’ keep former votes and seats.

I’m also not sure what happens to the UUP. It does have a particularly good chance of picking up South Antrim with Robin Swann (who survived the Covid Inquiry reasonably well) but I don’t see any other gains at this point—not even in North Down. All in all, then, a messy few months ahead.