Ben Lowry: Three points to keep in mind when arguing against the NI Protocol

Alex Kane, in his poignant farewell article on pages 14 and 15, says he has worked under six editors.

Monday, 2nd August 2021, 11:31 am
Updated Thursday, 5th August 2021, 4:20 pm
Michel Barnier, EU Brexit Negotiator, Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Jean-Claude Juncker, EC President,, in Brussels on October 17, 2019, just after the NI Protocol was agreed. It was so complicated that it is clear that few people in the UK government fully understood its implications

I am technically his seventh, now that Alistair Bushe has sadly moved on (I am acting up). But having been in that role a mere fortnight, I hardly feel equipped to pay tribute to Alex.

So all I will just say is this: We are dismayed he has decided to move on, and you – his army of Monday fans – will be too.

Above all, I enjoyed Alex’s frontline reminiscences of key moments in unionism, from the worker’s council strike of 1974 to the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I am delighted Alex has agreed to pen us occasional historical pieces.

In the meantime, we have not yet got a replacement for Alex and this week I am stepping in. But bear with us, we will be rotating the writers in the coming weeks, beginning with Owen Polley next Monday, and we will all endeavour to try to fill Alex’s shoes

Ben Lowry column for today:

The Northern Ireland Protocol is so complicated that it is clear that few people in the UK government fully understood its implications in 2019.

This is increasingly apparent from the way in which senior government ministers have clearly become very anxious indeed as to what they agreed in October of that year.

They blame the European Union for inflexibility over the protocol and say that it is not working and that they have, within the text of the protocol, justifications for — at the very least — the UK’s retrospective demand for changes to its operation.

But, while it is true that Boris Johnson agreed to the protocol in October 2019 under duress (caused by the Benn amendment weeks earlier, which in effect hobbled the sort of Brexit that the Tory Party had come to demand), there is no escaping the fact that Britain agreed to the Irish Sea border about which it is now so genuinely concerned.

It is inconceivable that Brussels would have made such a mistake in reverse.

And I believe that a very large part of this disaster is the fact that the details of trade and of regulations are so highly complex that very few people understand them.

Certainly it is one reason the unionist reaction to the protocol has been so mild.

There is still only a limited understanding of the constitutional ramifications of it.

Therefore, there are a number of simple core points that I think unionists should try to keep in mind at all times.

The first is to reject the idea that the protocol is only a minor modification to the Act of Union, and that that founding document has been amended before and so is of little consequence.

We heard this point being made at the end of June, when the government won in court against those unionist politicians who had challenged the legality of the Irish Sea border.

Apologists for the protocol rushed to welcome the judge’s verdict and they went on to say that the principle of consent was untouched.

The people of Northern Ireland were still in the UK and only with their consent would that ever change.

But this is entirely misleading. It implies that unfettered trade within a nation is a minor matter of limited consequence..

In fact it is a fundamental matter, indeed one of only a relatively small number of fundamental matters,such as defence and the Treasury.

If one such crucial matter can be set aside at a stroke, if impliedly repealed by other hurriedly enacted legislation, and that is not seen as an attack on the presumption of consent with regard to our membership of the UK, then consent is greatly undermined, if not rendered meaningless.

The second core point that unionists should absorb is related to the damage done to the Act of Union: they should stop saying ‘we want to help protect the EU single market’.

I have heard unionists from Doug Beattie to Edwin Poots echo Brandon Lewis in making this pledge.

Mr Lewis has to say that, because the UK is in treaty with the EU.

Unionists should be saying no such thing. The internal UK market has been trashed at the behest of the EU.

In those circumstances, we should have not the slightest interest in whether or not the EU single market is protected. If it isn’t protected then hard luck to them. Brussels shattered our own precious market.

The third thing is that unionists need to be wary of this mantra about the democratic deficit of the protocol.

Of course that deficit is an outrage but we need to be very wary indeed of where that argument takes us.

It is a path towards a future Sinn Fein-led crisis that NI must have either its own EU representation of else representation via the Republic as proxy.

In other words, of course we want a say in the trade rules that govern us, but not in ways that mean fresh constitutional damage to an already damaged Union.

• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

——— ———

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers — and consequently the revenue we receive — we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Ben Lowry

Acting Editor