Owen Polley: Many culprits are to blame for the Irish Sea border

To paraphrase a local TV show, “Who is to blame for the Northern Ireland Protocol?”

By Owen Polley
Monday, 23rd May 2022, 2:06 am
Updated Wednesday, 25th May 2022, 7:07 pm
Dublin politicians, particularly Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, courted anti-British feeling among voters rather than urge caution from Brussels
Dublin politicians, particularly Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, courted anti-British feeling among voters rather than urge caution from Brussels

A conventional answer, of course, would name Brexit, Boris Johnson or the DUP, and it would contain an undeniable element of truth.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU opened up the issue of how and where a trade border would operate between the two jurisdictions.

This question was answered in the most inept, least appropriate way, but it was asked only because of the referendum result.

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Boris Johnson, infamously, agreed to a protocol that divided up his own country, after promising that he would do no such thing.

Subsequently, with trademark confidence, he airily pooh-poohed people who pointed out the potential mayhem that his deal contained.

For the DUP’s part, in the weeks leading up to the protocol, it okayed a regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And, before that, it missed numerous opportunities to use its influence to persuade the Conservatives that any barrier within the UK was unacceptable.

It’s usually forgotten though, that there is a lot more blame to go around.

Many actors took many decisions, following the Brexit vote, that meant they cannot escape responsibility for the problems we face today.

It’s particularly ironic, for example, that Theresa May is so keen to criticise her successor and excuse her own performance in office.

She was, after all, the first UK prime minister to agree to a border down the Irish Sea. Her sympathisers now claim that her ‘backstop’ deal would have prevented Northern Ireland’s estrangement from Great Britain, but that argument ignores the contents of the original Withdrawal Agreement.

The whole point of the ‘backstop’ was that it would kick in if and when the rest of the UK started to ‘diverge’ from EU rules and regulations.

At that point, almost every feature of Boris’s eventual protocol — customs posts, checks on goods, paperwork and the rest — was supposed to appear.

Mrs May used Northern Ireland as a ruse to try to tie the whole of Britain closely to the EU, without actually arguing for a ‘soft Brexit’, which she knew was unpopular with many MPs in her own party.

The idea that unionists should have supported her deal, because it might, in theory, have delayed aspects of the sea border, doesn’t make sense even considered in retrospect.

Theresa May was not alone in invoking Northern Ireland’s peace process deceptively to get her own way.

Many keen ‘remainers’, and even some unionists in Northern Ireland, thought it was worth using our sensitive position to protect the UK’s links to Brussels. They included MPs who supported the ‘Benn Act’, which was designed to prevent Brexit, if the government could not reach an agreement with the European Commission before the end of 2019.

Lord Frost and other Tories eventually argued that this legislation explained why Boris Johnson signed off a bad deal for Northern Ireland, rather than leave the whole UK in the EU, as the deadline approached.

Brussels was an even more blatant culprit when it came to fomenting this crisis. It knew that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was an explosive issue, but it identified the province as a weak point in the UK’s negotiating position and exploited it ruthlessly.

The Republic of Ireland, and Irish nationalism more generally, saw the opportunity to create an all-Ireland economy and weaken our economic and political bonds with Great Britain.

Dublin, in particular, knew that it was pursuing an outcome that unionists could not accept and that would potentially destabilise Northern Ireland. But its politicians, particularly Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, chose to court anti-British feeling among voters and take a populist standpoint, rather than urge caution and responsibility from Brussels.

Pro-EU liberals in Northern Ireland, like the Alliance Party, cannot act as if they are blameless either.

Even if you accept, as they claim, that the UK cannot leave the single market without creating a ‘hard border’ somewhere (and that is just because the EU says so), they quite consciously decided that their priority was to protect our links to Brussels and Dublin at the expense of our place in the British internal market and the Union.

They knew that our economy was linked intricately to the rest of the UK, but their ideological affiliations to the EU trumped any practical considerations. Scarcely once have they urged Brussels, in public at least, to show sensitivity or to act with restraint, given Northern Ireland’s circumstances.

Their role has been to cheerlead the European Commission’s negotiators and berate the Westminster government at every possible opportunity. They gave the EU so-called ‘cross community’ cover to pursue the hardest, most inflexible policies at Northern Ireland’s expense.

Now, at least, there is nobody left who believes that the protocol is working properly. Unionists and, with varying degrees of consistency, the government, are trying to change it, but the EU and its supporters don’t appear to want to solve this crisis.

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