Owen Polley: Don’t hold your breath for the government’s protocol busting bill

Another day, another report that the government is about to toughen up its approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

By Owen Polley
Monday, 25th April 2022, 3:30 am
Updated Monday, 25th April 2022, 3:37 am
Jacob Rees-Mogg calls the United Kingdom more important than a deal “with a foreign power”. But it wasn’t more important when the government signed the Withdrawal Agreement
Jacob Rees-Mogg calls the United Kingdom more important than a deal “with a foreign power”. But it wasn’t more important when the government signed the Withdrawal Agreement

This time, the Financial Times claimed that the prime minister is preparing legislation, “that will give ministers sweeping powers to rip up the post-Brexit deal governing trade” here.

The paper said that a Northern Ireland bill will be introduced early in the next parliamentary session, which begins in May. The legislation will give the government powers to “switch off key parts of the protocol in UK law, including border checks on goods.”

‘Whitehall insiders’ believe the bill can prevent a ‘constitutional crisis’ in Northern Ireland, after the Stormont election. In other words, the government’s briefing seems intended to persuade the DUP that it should rejoin the power-sharing executive and nominate a first or deputy first minister (assuming it is still the biggest unionist party).

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Though the EU’s fans and apologists reacted like he had announced an invasion of Normandy, unionists will be sceptical about the seriousness of this manoeuvre by the prime minister. The story was leaked by ‘insiders’ in an anonymous briefing, so, for the time being, it is far from a promise by the government.

The plan, as it is reported, is also vague enough to mean almost anything. We have no idea how it might work. If ministers had these powers, for example, would they use them immediately or would the bill simply put more pressure on the EU? Would it deal with the constitutional and legal issues created by the protocol, or just offer short term remedies like ‘grace periods’?

We do not yet have enough information to make even an educated guess.

On Radio 4’s Today programme, the Ulster Unionist leader, Doug Beattie, implied that the DUP needed only a flimsy excuse to return to power-sharing anyway. He said that, if it was the largest party, an executive could be formed even if the government triggered Article 16, “on the narrowest band possible”. He insinuated that the press briefing was designed to, “cajole people to the polling booth for one particular party” (i.e. the DUP).

Whether you accept that claim or not, the more relevant point is that ministers have threatened repeatedly to take unilateral action on the sea border. On a trip to India, Boris Johnson gave fresh vague undertakings to ‘fix’ issues with the sea border over the weekend.

Just before the report about potential legislation broke, Jacob Rees-Mogg made even more combative remarks at Westminster’s European Scrutiny Committee.

The Brexit Opportunities Minister told MPs that the government signed the Protocol only, “on the basis that it would be reformed”. “There comes a point where you say: ‘Well you haven’t reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves’... The United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement that we have with a foreign power.”

On the surface, this reassures unionists that ministers are serious this time. However, the UK’s integrity was clearly not more important to the government when it pressed ahead with the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place. That may have been recoverable, if it had had a coherent plan to deal with the economic and constitutional consequences for Northern Ireland.

Instead, it entered a seemingly endless negotiation with the EU. It threatened repeatedly to trigger article 16 and suspend aspects of the sea border, but, despite the negotiators crashing through multiple mooted ‘deadlines’, the UK refused to make good on those threats.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is, by some distance, the most bullish advocate of Brexit in the current government. During his appearance at the committee, he made other remarks that emphasised the UK’s independence from EU influence. He claimed that he doesn’t care what the bloc does, “anymore than… what the United States does or Singapore does”, rubbished Brussels’ new regulations on speed-limiters in cars and implied that the government would tackle the cost of living crisis by removing red tape imposed by the EU.

These are messages that delight the pro-Brexit, free trade wing of the Conservative Party that Rees-Mogg represents. Boris Johnson became Tory leader thanks to these MPs and he needs to retain their loyalty, to have any chance of keeping his job.

For that reason, the government often uses free-trading, Brexit-style language, even though its policies are usually much more cautious in reality. The Europhile FT journalist, Peter Foster, dismissed Rees-Mogg’s comments on Twitter. “We’re not really supposed to take (him) seriously… It’s all a game designed to wind folks (like me) up.”

In Northern Ireland, the protocol is not a game. It is a deadly serious threat to livelihoods, stability and our place in the UK.

The government absolutely should change its approach and face down the EU, potentially through a protocol busting bill in parliament.

Let’s hope this time it is serious, but like most unionists here, I’ll believe it only when I see such legislation getting royal assent.

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