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Unionist humiliation over the Protocol doesn’t advance Irish unity

Today’s High Court judgement, making clear that the Northern Ireland Protocol is perfectly constitutional and above board, is a hammer blow to unionist hopes that they can reverse the infernal border-in-the-Irish-Sea.

A British judge in the shape of Mr. Justice Colton, sitting in a British court, handed down a humiliating defeat for the plaintiffs, a veritable supergroup of unionist luminaries, including Arlene Foster, Steve Aiken, Jim Allister, and Kate Hoey.

The pernickety arguments they put forward in a bid to prove the Protocol is at variance with the Act of Union and the Good Friday Agreement, were simply dismissed. There is talk of a challenge, but having struggled to muster the cash for the initial appeal, we will see how that claim pans out.

So, what does today’s judgment mean for the debate around Irish unity?

Two things, I think.

The first is that it is an unwelcome distraction. Indeed, if it is possible to reconcile Unionist concerns over post-Brexit arrangements, then let us do that. There is no advantage in rubbing their noses in it. Granted, there is a good deal of schadenfreude at the mess the DUP has gotten itself into by its witless support for Brexit, but a pragmatic solution that lowers the political temperature, while still guaranteeing there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland, should be welcomed by all.

The second is that unionists finally need to understand their predicament. They are in zugzwang, as they say in chess. Every move, every development, now weakens their overall position. Not by grand design by those malevolent United Irelanders; merely because Northern Ireland is now hanging by a thread, with a clear mechanism in the shape of the border poll to expedite it, as we inch nearer and nearer to the day when one is held.

Northern Ireland just does not fit in to the modern British state, causing, as it does, problems for the rest of the UK. In a trade-off between respecting the sensibilities of unionists and making the right decision for the British people, there is no contest. Not a moment’s doubt about which British ministers will choose.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – Brit nationalist romantics – are the nearest thing unionists will find to real friends at Westminster (with the latter arguing passionately against the Good Friday Agreement as a callow young journalist). Both are now seen as sell-outs by unionists – fair weather friends at best – with Boris repeatedly leading them up the garden path.

Wiser heads from within the unionist tribe need to understand this and recognise that the combination of aggressive direct action and legal activism are precisely the same tactics that failed 35 years ago in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Then, as now, a Conservative Government faced them down. This will happen again, which is why Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie need to latch onto the sensible concessions made today by the EU Commission to waylay full implementation of rules on chilled meats and get serious about preparing the ground for a deal that achieves none of the hard-liners’ demands.

The Protocol is not going to be scrapped – either by legal game-playing or the threats of loyalist corner boys – but it can have the rough edges sanded down. This is the best unionists will get and the sooner they realise that the sooner their political position might recover.