Dublin. Westminster. Brussels. Washington. The list of enemies that Unionist politicians feel are arrayed against them seems to grow exponentially. And now we can add capitalism to the list.
This is the logical conclusion to Sir Reg Empey’s comments in the Belfast Telegraph the other day.
The former Ulster Unionist leader says it is ‘intolerable’ that British businesses are developing all-Ireland supply chains thanks to the Northern Ireland Protocol, with cross-border trade between northern and southern Ireland booming, while trade from Britain to Northern Ireland wilts.
The figures are pretty stark. Exports heading south-north are up by 40% since 2020 and 54% since 2018. While figures for north-south trade have grown by 61% since 2020 – and a whopping 111% since 2018.
‘Many of us have long suspected that the intent of the EU all along was to recalibrate Northern Ireland’s trade by closing off traditional supply routes with the rest of the UK and facilitating trade between NI and the EU,’ Empey claims.
He also blames the British Government (‘[they] should never have proposed a border on the Irish Sea’) and the DUP (‘[they] should never have supported this anti-unionist solution. We are all now paying the price for this blunder’).
But what’s the problem? Only in the reductive world of Ulster Unionism could an increase in trade and sensible co-operation with the rest of Ireland – no matter how rational it is – be viewed as an existential threat that must be repelled.
Actively trying to impede this trend – as Sir Reg seems to be suggesting – is merely evidence that economic illiteracy is not confined to the DUP, which is, of course, renowned for its magical thinking.
The brass tacks are these: The British Government faces a public finance crisis, with Boris Johnson’s free-wheeling approach to spending now starting to cause real concern in the treasury.
The latest problem to rear its head is how the £10 billion a year bill to support changes to the social care system will be met. And that’s before the post-Covid and post-Brexit problems are factored in.
What you can be certain of is that Northern Ireland will find itself at the back of the queue when it comes to UK government spending priorities. Having now forfeited €600 million a year in EU funding, it needs its private sector to pick up the slack, where it can.
Alas, Unionism still exists in a consequence-free environment where British taxpayers will prop-up Northern Ireland’s moribund economy in perpetuity.
If British businesses exporting to Northern Ireland choose to utilise all-island supply chains to fulfil their customers north of the border, then that is a matter for them. If they consider that the additional Protocol checks make that uneconomic, then they will not.
Sir Reg can issue his Canute-like instructions for the waves to recede, but like the Danish king, he will simply find that he ends up with wet shoes.
Kevin Meagher is the author of What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division (Biteback Publishing, 2021).