Since the disasters of the UWC strike and the collapse of the first power sharing structures in 1974, I’ve never found it more difficult to discover the route to stable politics in Northern Ireland. To be sure, the overall situation is nowhere near as fraught. A war on two fronts is not being waged. Masked paramilitaries are not barricading the streets and the power supply is not in the brink of being cut off entirely. On the contrary, despite Covid restrictions, most of life is normal, even thriving. But uncomfortable echoes of the past are being sounded deliberately and are intended to send shivers down spines. The threat of Loyalist violence is both hinted at and piously disavowed, Pilate-like. All the concentration is being heaped on the future of the Assembly. Here anything Sinn Fein can do the DUP can do better.
Leave aside the DUP. The immediate future of the Protocol is Liz Truss’s. She will “wine and dine” Maros Sefcovic, the EU Brexit negotiator on Thursday at Chevening the grand country residence used by foreign secretaries to impress. Her added status compared to David Frost could be useful. She’s committed to speeding up the process towards a Protocol deal we’re told but is hardly likely to accept a firm deadline at Jeffrey Donaldson’s behest. Sovereign governments don’t do that sort of thing, particularly this one, being so prickly about its new Brexit status.
But according to an article below her name in the Sunday Telegraph, Truss hardly needs to. She barely acknowledges the concessions and mitigations EU have made already. In the article designed to appeal to her personal political base, she sounds all the Brexit notes so familiar from Frost, with greater urgency added. She has adopted the view that the Protocol threatens the GFA rather than protects it
As it stands, the Protocol has lost the consent of the Unionist community over fears it is dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. As a sovereign nation, we cannot be in a situation where we have to notify the EU to provide vital support to businesses – such as targeted tax breaks – in one part of our country.
Northern Ireland is not in the Single Market and shouldn’t be treated as if it is. We are proposing a common-sense solution – goods going to the EU should go through customs formalities and those staying in the United Kingdom should not. That means no checks or documentation for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and staying there. We are happy to continue checking goods going on to the Republic of Ireland to protect the EU Single Market and to ensure there is no need for a hard border.
Independent arbitration is the international norm for such agreements and that is what we want to see. As I have said, we need to end the role of the European Court of Justice as the final arbiter of disputes.
I am prepared to work night and day to negotiate a solution. But let me be clear, I will not sign up to anything which sees the people of Northern Ireland unable to benefit from the same decisions on taxation and spending as the rest of the UK, or which still sees goods moving within our own country being subject to checks.
My priority is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. I want a negotiated solution but if we have to use legitimate provisions including Article 16, I am willing to do that.
Do we take her words at face value?
As Politics Home reports, agreeing to take responsibility for the Northern Ireland Protocol, which the UK and EU are renegotiating more than a year after it first came into effect, creates “a real dilemma” for Truss. “Her credibility as Foreign Secretary rests on being able to cut deals and cultivate serious relations with European countries on major strategic issues like Russia and China,… But her credibility with the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative party rests on her not compromising on issues like the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). She can’t have both.”
It’s not as if a deal is impossible.
On the role for European Court of Justice, Boris Johnson was reported as being willing to recognise a role for the court provided it became a partner with the UK in arbitrating any future dispute.
The EU has also offered to remove some customs paperwork for traders whose goods meet the criteria to prove they are staying in Northern Ireland, and has made some further proposals to minimise disruption to the supply of medicines. ..These proposals fall still short of the UK’s demands. And this is where the DUP’s Edwin Poots, is clearly a glutton for punishment. Incited by the agitator Jamie Bryson he is applying pressure by trying to order the removal of existing checks .
Ronan McCrea is professor of constitutional and European law at University College London. . As if current pressures weren’t enough he fears the Republic could be forced to erect hard border controls if Article 16 was invoked or even if the situation continues to fester.
Much more challenging for the ( Irish) Government would be a scenario where the UK government does not trigger article 16 but instead consistently partially fails to fulfil its obligations under the protocol, most notably its duty to check goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain for the compliance with EU law.
In the absence of dramatic moves by the UK, it would be hard to rally the rest of the EU behind a dramatic response that would risk a full-scale trade war. But, over time, with the UK failing to uphold its obligations, the open Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland would become a hole in the border of the EU single market through which goods that do not meet the standards of EU law flow into the EU market.
While the ( Irish ) Government has very good reasons not to make any public pronouncements on its plans, in private Ministers will inevitably be giving careful consideration to the question of whether the pledge not to erect Border infrastructure would be maintained in all eventualities.
The ball is in Truss’s court. If there is one lesson that survives from 48 years ago, it is that we should not allow politicians to talk us into a crisis in society. The fear is that the ambitious and confident new Foreign Secretary out of limited knowledge could do precisely that.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London