Saturday, February 05, 2022

Northern Ireland, the protocol, and the First Minister

This week the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland urged the reinstatement of the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the return to a stable devolved government. 

  • The decision by the DUP to withdraw the First Minister from the Northern Ireland Executive is extremely disappointing – threatening the delivery of public services for the citizens of Northern Ireland. 
  • The Northern Ireland Protocol is having significant consequences for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, unbalancing delicate and hard-won political stability. That is why the Government has made it clear to the EU for some time that we need to fix these issues. The Government will continue its intensive talks with the EU in order to resolve these.
  • The UK government is urging the DUP to reinstate the First Minister immediately – to focus on a strong functioning Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will continue to speak to the leaders of the five parties of the Northern Ireland Executive, as well as international partners, to encourage a return to stable devolved government in Northern Ireland.
The above is the official line - which I would not have posted if I did not agree with it. What follows is my own opinion and not necessarily that of the government or the Conservative party.

It was always obvious to anyone with more than a minimal understanding of Ireland that the transition from Britain and Ireland being on the same side of the EU's borders to one in which part of the island of Ireland was in the EU and part was not would present some extremely difficult challenges. This was one of the three main reasons why, after a lot of agonising, I decided to vote Remain in 2016 as I explained on the day before the referendum here.

But the electorate voted Leave and, and Britain has honoured that democratic vote and left the EU, and that means that all the bodies involved - the UK and Irish governments, the Northern Ireland executive and the EU both sides have a duty to their people to try to make this work.

That means a need for compromise and realism on both sides. And if the Northern Ireland Protocol is to be sustainable, it has to be implemented in an intelligent and reasonable manner.

The response often put to this is that the present British PM and Lord Frost, the British trade negotiator who became one of the protocol's fiercest defenders, also negotiated and signed the agreement of which the protocol is part.

That is a solid point but it is not the unbeatable killer argument that many of the people who put it forward appear to think it is, for the following reason. 

Like many diplomatic treaties and instruments, the trade deal between Britain and the EU and the Northern Ireland protocol contains both a degree of fudge and of language designed to assure both sides that it means what they need to say it means. Like all such compromises it will only be possible to implement it in practice in a sustainable manner with a degree of good will and compromise on both sides.

So just as the EU would be entitled to accuse the UK of acting in bad faith if it totally ignored the clauses in the Northern Ireland protocol designed to ensure that trade between the UK mainland and Ireland does not undermine the integrity of the EU single market, the UK would be every bit as much entitled to accuse the EU of bad faith should it refuse to agree to attempt to operate the protocol in ways which do not undermine the clauses which promise the people of Northern Ireland that there will not be undue interference with trade between the mainland and the six counties.

And as it stands, the protocol has been operated in which which do give rise to such interference.

This morning on BBC Radio 4 I heard a farmer on the British mainland say that he is no longer allowed to ship certain of his products to Northern Ireland which used to be one of his major markets because of the way the protocol is being applied. I presume that may be a reference to the preposterous ban on moving cooked meat over the Irish Sea from the mainland UK to the part of the island of Ireland which is also part of the UK.

No other country would tolerate being told by an outside body which it has left that it cannot move products within its own sovereign territory. 

Could even the most partisan defender of the EU seriously imagine for a quarter of a second that French farmers would allow any external body to tell them they could not ship French agricultural products from Provence to Paris? In the highly unlikely event that a French government even attempted to obey such an edict their farmers would quite literally riot and take other extreme measures until that government backed down.

Does anyone seriously imagine that the Germans would put up with being told that they could not ship Frankfurter sausages from Frankfurt to Berlin?

Of course they wouldn't.

Britain should not and will not indefinitely tolerate this either.

And it is an exact reversal of the truth for those who insist on not challenging the protocol to accuse the UK government or the Northern Ireland unionists of jeopardising the Good Friday agreement. One of the worst current threats to that agreement is the Protocol as it is currently operating.

I believe in international law, and we should use every effort to achieve a solution by negotiation and by legal means. And even Article 16 should be a last resort/ But without give and take on both sides, the protocol as it is operating at the moment is not sustainable.

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