“I’ll never be neutral on the Union” – the familiar battle cry we hear every time a new Northern Ireland Secretary takes up residence in Stormont House. It’s time they showed some teeth…
Boris Johnson is the first British Prime Minister since the Act of Union in 1801 to erect internal trade barriers within the United Kingdom. Which is kind of ironic, considering he is also the first Prime Minister to hold the title of Minister for the Union. In addition, the current office holder, Brandon Lewis – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – denies the existence of any border in the Irish Sea. If the Conservative party wants to be taken seriously on the Union, they must first acknowledge their mistakes and take action to correct them.
The recent shenanigans that led to the disbandment of the Union unit within No.10 does not inspire confidence. While the political and media focus around the state of the Union tends to focus on Scotland, for obvious reasons, it is the situation which has been imposed on Northern Ireland that presents the biggest challenge to those who have been trusted with the care of our Union.
Establishing committees to strategise and then implement policies across the Kingdom will not repair the damage to relationships which have been long standing between unionists in Northern Ireland and respective Conservative governments. The Northern Ireland Protocol is just the latest strain in that relationship. Yet the protocol is perhaps the most serious threat to the Union in my lifetime because it undermines the integrity of the internal market and gives succour to the separatists who would much rather align with Brussels than with London.
Speaking at the DUP Party Conference in late 2018, Boris Johnson said this:
“If you read the Withdrawal Agreement you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called Ukni. This is how Brussels sees it. Ukni is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont. Ukni is in large part to be ruled by Brussels.”
Such a firm statement gave us Unionists hope that Northern Ireland’s equal position within the United Kingdom would be assured and protected. For the first time in many decades, Unionists held the balance of power at Westminster and felt like the new Prime Minister understood their concerns. Yet, after one meeting with the Irish Taoiseach, some argue Boris folded and choose political expediency over the well-being of the Union.
So, how do we fix it? Rebuilding trust is an arduous process, but it is essential if we are to overcome both the external and internal threats to the Union which are gathering momentum. Unionists need to feel their Government in London is on their side and don’t just view them as a drain on resources or a concession that can be handed to Brussels for the benefit of England.
The creation of a Council for the Union, made up of unionist politicians, civic and community leaders across the Kingdom would be a positive first step. Such a forum, meeting regularly in every nation and region of the UK, would allow Unionists to identify shared concerns and specific problems in each of the four nations. The Minister for the Union could chair the forum. The establishment of an Office for the Union would give it the necessary support structures to operate effectively.
If the Conservative party is serious about the Union they will act now to remove the barriers which they have erected between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and begin a programme of outreach to rebuild relationships before it’s too late. The clock is ticking.
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This piece was written for our website.