Ben Lowry: The prospects of Article 16 being triggered to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol are receding

Bertie Ahern has said that he was making pro loyalist comments on Thursday.

Saturday, 20th November 2021, 8:57 am
Updated Sunday, 21st November 2021, 12:27 pm
Michael Gove said yesterday he is confident the UK can make progress on the Northern Ireland Protocol without triggering Article 16

The ex Taoiseach had said: “The reality is in East Belfast and in the ghettos and in the areas where you’re likely to get trouble, is that people haven’t got a clue about the protocol, not a clue.”

He also said: “They see it as a road to the Dublin government taking over again and this is a pathway to that. That’s the hard reality.”

Mr Ahern said yesterday he was in fact being sympathetic to loyalists. I accept his explanation in part because I think that the former Fianna Fail leader is consistently more open to unionist thinking than most Dublin politicians.

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Also because a close reading of his comments suggests that he was phrasing them in a way to try to make a southern audience better understand northern concerns about the Irish Sea border.

His comments about people not having “a clue” about the protocol made him sound hostile, as if he was saying loyalism is stupid.

But in fact very few people understand the protocol, because it involves areas of expertise such as trade law which few people have. This is a reason it has survived.

There was a period when there was uproar over problems with deliveries to NI and the impact on shop shelves, but this can be easily placated by a slashing of checks. However, such a reduction in checks does not alter the constitutional implications of the protocol.

It is the EU now that sees this, and it is making significant concessions around checks so it can maintain the constitutional gain, which as it knows will have lasting impact, separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Initially there was a degree of the EU punishing the UK for Brexit by taking such a robust line on Irish Sea border procedures, which had not even been fully implemented.

The Atlantic magazine writer Tom McTague, who is one of the few journalists who has tried hard to understand all sides to the protocol debate, including the unionist one, responded this week to the latest EU plan to ease the protocol (a 50% cut in customs formalities).

He wrote on Twitter: “If you argued the protocol was the only solution, its full and rigorous implementation only right and fair, and that previous EU opposition to extended grace periods and the like was only reasonable, do you support or oppose this?”

That is not a point you hear often put to those who argued for rigorous implementation of the protocol, in the way that supporters of Brexit were urged to “own” the things they misjudged.

Why not?

Those who called for full implementation were either wrong or they were right, which in the latter case must mean they deplore the latest EU offer.

Mr Ahern’s point about people not understanding the protocol was apparent in the recent University of Liverpool poll, in which there was large public support for the protocol but also for the opposite, unfettered internal UK trade.

Only if people are confused could they adopt such contradictory positions. Yet outside of the News Letter few outlets highlighted the support for unfettered trade. Instead there was a focus on the apparent support for the protocol (see below for a link to my recent article on such polling).

I bet the EU noticed this. It hardly helped the UK maintain a tough line against the Irish Sea border.

Also, unionism has sent mixed signals since October 2019 as to whether it will reject the protocol.

I was initially sceptical that Article 16 to suspend the protocol would ever be invoked, as Lord Frost implied it would be. I was expecting the usual pattern of tough talk from Britain, that is believed by many unionists, followed by nationalist Ireland and the EU getting what they demand. But I began to believe in recent months Article 16 was going to be deployed.

Then within the last fortnight there was a softened tone. Lord Frost even warned the EU this week against reading too much into the softened tone.

I was talking to someone this week who is well connected in London who asked how likely it was that Lord Frost would “die in a ditch” over the protocol given ambivalent signals from unionists.

Yesterday Michael Gove praised “a constructive [EU] approach” and said “Lord Frost has signalled that while, of course, it’s always possible that article 16 may require to be invoked, we’re confident that we’ll be able to make progress without it”.

It seems Article 16 is now unlikely to be triggered.

• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter editor. Other articles by him below and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the paper:

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