For the DUP and the dwindling band of Brexit diehards, the Northern Ireland Protocol is Zulu – with Sammy Wilson as Michael Caine and Boris Johnson as Stanley Baker, fighting in the last ditch against the Brussels hordes.
But for almost everyone else, it is an episode of Star Trek. Specifically the one in which the Starfleet encounters an alien lifeforce with the power to create worlds just by imagining them, to make illusions that are entirely indistinguishable from reality.
The protocol row has been a reality distortion field. It has made realities seem illusory and illusions seem real.
Within this field, three big events never happened.
Firstly, the DUP did not agree with everyone else that a hard Border was unacceptable and that Northern Ireland could not be treated in the same way as the rest of the UK in the Brexit negotiations.
One fiction was that, if the British government threatened to tear up the withdrawal agreement it had just signed, the EU would renegotiate the protocol. This was always impossible
In particular, the then first minister Arlene Foster did not sign a joint statement with the then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in August 2016. It did not say that “most obviously, this region is unique in that it is the only part of the UK which has a land border with an EU member state.” It did not stress that this border must “not become an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services.”
Why did this not happen? Because if it had happened the DUP would have accepted that Northern Ireland could not have the same kind of Brexit as the rest of the UK – meaning, of course, that Brexit would inevitably weaken the Union by building in an open-ended process of differentiation.
Secondly, the DUP was not given a way out of this dilemma and did not proceed to brick up that exit door. It just never happened that Theresa May (an actual unionist) hammered out a deal with the EU that included the infamous backstop – a mechanism that would avoid the need for a so-called “border in the Irish Sea” by effectively keeping all of the UK within the single market and customs union.
It’s just as well this didn’t happen because, if it did, it would mean that the DUP decided to destroy the prime minister that was giving it what it wanted and replace her with a known charlatan who betrays everyone and everything he ever touched. This would be too foolish to be believed.
Third, of course, Boris Johnson didn’t create the Protocol and the hardline Brexiteers of the European Research Group didn’t vote for it in December 2020. It could not be that the people who subsequently railed against this terrible outrage against British sovereignty and the sacred Union were the very people who committed the outrage in the first place.
In the reality distortion field, these facts were made to disappear. And they were replaced by fictions that could be made real merely by imagining them to be so.
This story has always been about whether the British government could pull itself out of the vortex and separate illusions from realities
One fiction was that, if the British government threatened to tear up the withdrawal agreement it had just signed, the EU would renegotiate the protocol. This was always impossible – the EU was never going to “scrap” an international treaty it had negotiated so painfully.
The other was that the EU would (or could) ever agree to remove the European Court of Justice as the final arbiter of EU law. There was never the slightest possibility that the EU (or indeed the ECJ itself) would agree to the establishment of a rival body with the power to make rulings on what EU law means.
But outside of this distortion field, there was just reality. It is an inescapable fact that Brexit separates Northern Ireland from Britain – and that the DUP actually insisted in 2016 that this must happen. It followed inevitably from the impossibility of a hard border on this island that controls would have to be placed on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
It is also a fact that the protocol was a last-minute deal, hastily agreed and pushed through by Johnson in order to be able to call an election and declare Brexit “done”. It was inevitable that it would be badly implemented – and always evident that most of the problems could be fixed if British governments wanted to fix them.
The issue, though, has never been red lanes, green lanes, VAT regimes or arbitration panels. This story has always been about whether the British government could pull itself out of the vortex and separate illusions from realities.
In the end, reality always wins. All that stuff that didn’t happen in the parallel universe of Star Trek politics has to be faced eventually in this mundane world.
It’s easy to see why that’s so hard for the DUP to do. When it teleports down from Planet Protocol on to the streets of Belfast and Ballymena, it has to confront the unpalatable truth that it was its own actions and decisions that detached Northern Ireland from the British mother ship.
The protocol deal will make that landing a little softer. It will make it easier for the new realities to bed themselves in and become normal. But that normality, thanks to the DUP and their allies in the ERG, is that Northern Ireland is increasingly a place apart.