Unionists see new hope for a hard border

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Tory extremists and unionists are exploiting the weakness of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “a renewed opportunity” to push for a hard Brexit and a remilitarisation of the border through Ireland, according to reports.

The collapse of the Stormont executive last week and renewed threats of loyalist violence are part of a strategy to trigger Article 16 of Brexit’s Irish protocol, according to a report in the Irish Independent.

Johnson, who is facing a police investigation for breaking Covid-19 rules, counts on the support of far-right Brexiteer Tory MPs to remain leader of the Conservative Party.

The British PM is also reported to be coming under pressure from a powerful Russian lobby in London to ‘open a second front’ on the EU, ahead of a potential war over Ukraine. Triggering Article 16 of the Irish protocol would likely lead to a trade war between Britain and the EU at a crucial time in European geopolitics.

The Stormont Executive collapsed two weeks ago after the DUP First Minister resigned in protest against the protocol. The move came ahead of an election the party believes should become a referendum on the issue.

Hardline unionists argue that the protocol, designed to prevent a return of border installations along the line of partition through Ireland, has instead divided the north of Ireland from Britain due to new checks on goods traded through seaports.

Some 80 unionists attended a high-profile anti-protocol rally in Dromore, County Down last week. Donaldson told the meeting ‘the Irish Sea border’ “represents the single greatest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom in a generation”.

The meeting was hosted by the anti-Catholic Orange Order and also featured unionist hardliner Jim Allister.

Mr Allister claimed the Protocol is “incompatible” with British rule in the north of Ireland. His party has moved closer to a formal pan-unionist alliance with the DUP ahead of the Assembly election scheduled for May 5.

The Ulster Unionist Party have so far failed to agree a voting pact. While the party was represented at Dromore, it also welcomed as a new member the former deputy leader of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party John Kyle, who has been arguing the Protocol offers unionism “significant opportunities”.

Some business figures have argued the boost to the North’s economy due its special status with the EU under the protocol could prevent a united Ireland by ‘making Northern Ireland work’.

Donaldson has instead called for pan-unionist unity to defeat the Protocol.

He told the rally: “We need to ensure this translates to the ballot box, to transfers between unionist candidates in order to maximise unionist representation in the next Assembly.”

However, other parties in the election have been focusing on practical and pragmatic issues, such as the rising cost of living and the public health service.

That stance has been boosted by a recent opinion poll, which showed just 5% of voters in the Six Counties consider the protocol to be the most important issue that concerns them at present.

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