Ben Lowry: There has been a shift in London towards sympathy for Northern Ireland over the protocol

It would be easy for unionists to dismiss this week’s development over the Northern Ireland Protocol, when Liz Truss pledged to re-write it.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 21st May 2022, 6:23 am
Updated Tuesday, 24th May 2022, 8:01 am
Politicias from the two main parties in Westminster still feel strongly that Northern Ireland should be part of the Union
Politicias from the two main parties in Westminster still feel strongly that Northern Ireland should be part of the Union

Unionists have good reason to be wary of the foreign secretary’s promise to introduce legislation to minimise the Irish Sea border.

If unionists look back at the long arc of London policy towards Northern Ireland, they see a determination to ensure that nationalists are happy and to stay close to Irish governments. Above all, they see a Labour-Tory determination to keep Sinn Fein in the political structures.

Boris Johnson has been famously unreliable in his unionism. But, wider than that, past promises to help unionism have come to nothing. There are fresh memories of how a plan to use the UK Internal Market Act to override potential implications of Brexit and the protocol, such as a potential ban on the sale of GB agri-food products in NI was abandoned.

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Now the unionist concern is that Ms Truss has announced a political process that will take perhaps a year to come to fruition, and that will put pressure on the DUP to return to Stormont, before London — in the face of international pressure — buckles and imposes the protocol that it agreed, largely as is.

While that is a real prospect, let me set aside wariness and cynicism, and talk about a change of tone in Westminster that should give unionists grounds for hope.

The first piece of reassuring news is that there will be no rigorous implementation of the protocol. That phrase dates back to September 2020, when the leaders of Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and Greens issued a statement in response to the UK Internal Market Act plans, in which they called on the UK to “honour its commitments [under the Belfast Agreement and the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement] and ensure the rigorous implementation of the Protocol”.

Later that month, the four parties travelled to Dublin (somewhat controversially, given that there were Covid restrictions in place) to meet Simon Coveney, Ireland’s outspoken minister of foreign affairs. He afterwards called for “full implementation of the protocol”.

This history is worth reciting because all of the above politicians have been scathing about UK mis-steps since the Brexit referendum of June 2016 (of which there have been more than a few). But the call for full protocol implementation was a big political miscalculation.

It would, as local business leaders should have warned, inflicted massive damage on the flow of goods internally within the UK, towards Northern Ireland.

Archie Norman, chair of Marks and Spencer, explained this week how a single wagon of goods travelling Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland, entailed 700 pages of paperwork and several man hours in administration, and the same would apply to NI if the government had not unilaterally announced the extension of grace periods.

Now even the EU does not talk about the fullest possible implementation of the protocol, and has instead so far (in effect) accepted the grace period extensions.

However, Brussels does nonetheless want the implementation of the protocol to move to the next stage in its phased introduction, which will mean yet more checks. Thus the UK and EU are not merely far apart on the protocol, but are still pulling in opposite directions.

But I have never seen such a swing in opinion in London against a position held by the Irish government. Last week I mentioned Labour’s Hilary Benn who, while he made clear Boris Johnson was to blame for Brexit problems, did also urge the EU to be flexible over internal UK movements.

Look above at the tweet by Sir Christopher Meyer, ex ambassador to the US. Establishment figures once did not talk in this way in defence of NI if it might upset Dublin.

If we set aside the question of how NI ended up removed in trade flow from GB, it is striking how such a barrier is now thought intolerable in the corridors of power.

The Irish government seems keen for an accommodation with Britain, having not long ago been zealously close to the Brussels line.

Will this all result in unionists getting what they want, including unfettered trade GB-NI and vice versa?

I still fear that there will be a retreat in the face of sustained EU and US pressure.

But one thing seems increasingly apparent — the two main parties in Westminster still feel strongly that NI should be part of the Union.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor. Other columns by him below