Ben Lowry: Lord Frost’s speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol reflected a notably more robust UK approach to the border

On Tuesday there were four striking paragraphs in the speech by Lord Frost that help us see that the UK has toughened its approach towards the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Saturday, 16th October 2021, 11:59 pm
Updated Wednesday, 20th October 2021, 12:15 pm
Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost in Brussels yesterday for further talks with Maros Sefcovic. Barely perceptibly, the UK has begun to emphasise the Belfast Agreement in its totality

The Brexit minister was speaking in Lisbon the day before Maros Sefkovic outlined the EU’s more conciliatory approach to the Irish Sea border.

Brussels has moved substantially to reduce the impact of the protocol (although as Owen Polley writes on page 19, it has done nothing to address the underlying constitutional problems, see link below), so it seems clear that London’s harder line has produced some results.

(Incidentally, why are the Stormont politicians who called for rigorous implementation of the protocol, ie not only the existing checks but the full panoply of checks that were due to come in but now never will, not being ruthlessly grilled in NI media broadcasts? I remember five years of relentless, aggressive questioning of Brexiteers for their supposed mis-steps and mis-judgements).

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The first striking Lord Frost paragraph was: ‘The key feature of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is balance - between different communities and between their links with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. That balance is being shredded by the way this Protocol is working’

Barely perceptibly to people who do not follow politics closely, the UK has begun to emphasise the Belfast Agreement in its totality. This is code for what unionists is its central feature — keeping NI in the UK so long as that constitutional status has consent in NI.

Also, that the 1998 deal enshrined a set of relations in Ireland and Britain, north-south as well as east-west, and that the protocol wrecks the latter.

When Boris Johnson appeared to agree with President Joe Biden’s concern about threats to the Belfast Agreement in their recent White House meeting, the prime minister was in fact nodding to that broader point. Mr Johnson said “we absolutely all want ... to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground”.

There is not common ground on that. It took unionists a while to emphasise the importance of the agreement, as nationalist Ireland has done since the 2016 Brexit vote.

In part this is because of unionist unease at the Belfast agreement, which all the DUP opposed, which Jim Allister also did, and which a large minority of David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party did too.

Now unionists see the post 1998 settlement, for all its flaws, as far better than the post protocol world.

In the unionist display of solidarity at the Tory conference, Lord Trimble said that the protocol was “hollowing out” the 1998 accord.

Lord Frost also said: “[The command paper proposals] do not sweep away the Protocol. They work with the grain of it”

This paragraph reflects another emerging emphasis from London, away from its “commitment” to the protocol, something it reaffirmed this year, towards an almost grudging acceptance of the deal — and only if it changes. Lord Frost is saying that the UK is not acceding to unionist demands to scrap the protocol, but by adding that London will “work with the grain” of the deal, he is stopping short of a commitment to its essence.

Remember that in January the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis was still denying that there was a border in the Irish Sea.

Lord Frost on Tuesday also said: “ ...there is a widespread feeling in the UK that the EU did try to use Northern Ireland to encourage UK political forces to reverse the referendum result or at least to keep us closely aligned with the EU; and, moreover, that the Protocol represents a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied, and therefore cannot reasonably last in its current form.”

This is now a core part of the UK strategy: that the protocol was agreed in extremis in 2019. Lord (Dan) Hannan wrote on Conservative Home, reproduced on these pages, this week, see link below: “... There is no way that [Britain] would have agreed to the protocol had not a majority of MPs been working with Brussels to sabotage Brexit. The Protocol was the product of the Benn Act.”

Lord Frost’s fourth notable quote: “... it is this government that governs Northern Ireland as it does the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is not EU territory. It is our responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity in NI, and that may include using Article 16 if necessary

A UK minister openly defending sovereignty. What a pleasant change.

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter editor

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