Irish Examiner view: Time to be a school not a weak shoal

Irish Examiner view: Time to be a school not a weak shoal

David Trimble: Northern Ireland Protocol is causing a breakdown in relationship with Britain.

Crisis and chaos have more or less the same relationship as a school of fish and a shoal of fish. One becomes the other when the calm shown by a school swimming in synchrony collapses under pressure. If that metaphor can be extended to human behaviour, stress, mistrust, visceral, unchanging antipathy, and the oldest toxin of all, hatred all play a part in turning a school into an everyone-for-themselves shoal. At that point, the fish become prey, hunted down by whatever entity undermined the collegiality and security of the school.

Extending that metaphor northwards it seems that Loyalism is, once again, straddling the line between a shoal and a school. This time, the catalyst is the Northern Ireland Protocol, a mechanism agreed by British prime minister Boris Johnson to get a Brexit deal ahead of the 2019 general election. That arrangement is, according to Unionist venerables, causing problems. One of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and a man who made considerable sacrifices to achieve that accommodation, David Trimble has argued that not only does it destroy the North’s constitutional relationship with Britain, but it also is damaging the North’s fragile economy. As has nearly always been the case — and not just from Loyalism — those concerns are attended by the darkest threats even if not from Mr Trimble. Whether they can be made real is an open question but recent PSNI and MI5 reports, identified around 12,500 Loyalist paramilitaries. Of those 5,000 are affiliated with the Ulster Defence Association and 7,500 with the Ulster Volunteer Force. Why they should exist at all is a valid question. Are they an iteration of the Unionist veto that made 30 years of terrorism inevitable?

It is not difficult to understand Loyalism’s sense that they are being sold down the river by a Conservative Party once again justifying historian Ronan Fanning’s analysis of a lopsided relationship: “The perennial difficulty of commanding British attention.” That Max Hastings, unquestionably a British establishment figure, has said that reunification will take place within a generation, “righting a historical wrong” must energise that 12,500 too, had they not been energised by former British chancellor George Osborne who suggested the North is heading for Britain’s “exit door” and “few people will care”.

Those anxieties were exacerbated by the European Commission’s cack-handed application of the protocol over vaccine distribution. That unsettling misjudgement tested relationships anew but that they have, after immediate and necessary contrition, stabilised shows that the trust built up over years is more durable than some might wish. Hastings also addressed that dilemma but from a different perspective: “Two minorities still see virtue in keeping Ireland partitioned. The first is composed of a diminishing number of stubborn Protestant Unionists, who dominate their own community, but would become marginalised in a united Ireland. Meanwhile, some Southern politicians are privately fearful of the perils of absorbing several hundred thousand embittered ‘Proddies’. Violence, so long an Irish tradition, remains very close beneath the country’s skin, and every Irish politician knows it well.” That is an accurate, nutshell analysis.

Yet, the winds shift, vehemence is supplanted. The last census in the North found a growing cohort identified neither as Loyalist nor Nationalist. They have given up on trying to, as Paul Brady put it all those years ago “Still trying to carve tomorrow from a tombstone...” That same process, despite a Civil War commemoration in nearly every parish, has been underway south of the border for decades. Maybe the best way to copperfasten the peace is for those growing groups to reach over politics and celebrate the many achievements and hopes common to both. That seems a far more sensible option than, as is happening right now, disinterring all the old divisions. Let’s be a school this time, not a shoal.

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