If there is one thing that can never be said about Northern Irish politicians it is that they are pragmatic. In a universe where being hardheaded, realistic, practical and ready to compromise are seen as being essential, they have always remained the outlier.
Unionist politicians have shown themselves time and again to be singularly inept and short sighted; when it comes to shooting oneself in the foot, they are the perennial champions. How else to explain the statelet’s current plight – adrift, friendless, abandoned and unwanted by its one-time friends in Westminster?
It is worth going back to the days when the DUP entered a confidence-and-supply agreement with Theresa May to help keep her in power. When Ms May negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU that would have meant a soft Brexit, but the DUP ganged up with the hardest of hard Brexiteers to defeat her proposal three times, allowing for the accession of Boris Johnson. The May proposal would have meant all of the UK, including Northern Ireland, being treated as a single, undivided entity.
The new man promised the same. “We will never abandon our friends in northern Ireland,” he said soothingly. It was a promise that lasted about a week. In jig time, Boris had agreed to a border down the Irish Sea, the hiving off of northern Ireland to a hybrid existence, and an unravelling of the bonds which unionists had fondly believed to be eternal and inextricable. The unionists, as far as the Prime Minister was concerned, could sink or swim.
The act of betrayal stunned Arlene Foster and her followers. These changes to the integrity of the Union have already put us into an economic united Ireland, said the head of the Orange Order, a betrayal of the loyalty of the pro-British people of northern Ireland.
And if there remained the slightest doubt of how the unionist community was viewed across the water, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, drove the final nail in the coffin.
“Northern Ireland is heading for the exit door,” he wrote in the London Evening Standard recently.
Asserting that the unionists in Northern Ireland had always feared Britain was not sufficiently committed to their cause, he added: “Their short-sighted support for Brexit (and unbelievably stupid decision to torpedo Theresa May’s deal that avoided separate Irish arrangements), has made those fears a reality.”
And then, the final sting, which must have sent shivers down the spine of every unionist: “It pains me to report that most here and abroad will not care.”
There is an old adage that advises that when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. Had unionists not have been so ham handed in their Brexit strategy, that advice would have made perfect sense. Northern Ireland’s new status offers abundant opportunities, but these have been already scuppered by the unionists’ avowed aim of having the Protocol scrapped.
An example. The British media reports that dozens of small British manufacturers have set up subsidiaries in France and Germany in order to be able to supply their customers in the EU. How much easier it would be for them to set up in Northern Ireland, where they would enjoy seamless access to both their UK and EU customers? But that would require an assurance from the North that the Protocol is permanent, something which the unionists cannot now do because of the hook they have impaled themselves on.
No longer integral to the UK, without friends or allies, without an ounce of leverage politically, living in fear that an unwanted Border poll could be sprung at any time, Northern Ireland is Britain’s unwanted child. And soon, even the most blinkered loyalist will have to face the truth.