Owen Polley: The EU did not even try to address the assault on Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom

Even as the Northern Ireland Protocol stripped the province’s shelves of common British products and threatened our supply of medicines, Brussels insisted on one thing above all.

Saturday, 16th October 2021, 11:18 pm
Updated Wednesday, 20th October 2021, 12:00 pm
Maros Sefcovic unveiled the EU’s plans to 'mitigate' checks and paperwork between GB and NI but there are many caveats and exceptions. However, it is progress that the government and the EU have reopened this dangerous, unbalanced deal

There could be no renegotiation of this deal.

How things have changed.

This week the UK’s cabinet minister, Lord Frost, gave a speech in Lisbon, explaining Britain’s proposals for reforming the protocol.

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In response, the European Commission’s vice-president, Maros Sefcovic, unveiled the EU’s plans to “mitigate” checks and paperwork between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The two sides are now poised to start deeper discussions, with Sefcovic suggesting we are on the “home stretch” when it comes to solving problems with the “Irish Sea border”.

One thing is absolutely clear.

A renegotiation of the protocol is under way and has been for some time.

And, so far as it goes, that is encouraging.

For months, the EU lectured Britain about the impossibility of changing a system that requires more checks on goods in this tiny province than take place across Europe’s entire eastern frontier.

The pro-Brussels’ parties at Stormont called for the sea border to be “rigorously implemented”, implying that even more disruption was justified to comply with the EU’s demands.

Nobody is now keeping up the pretext that the protocol is working properly, or suggesting that the restrictions it places on Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade are reasonable.

That does not mean, though, that we are close to an acceptable deal.

The EU made great claims about its “far-reaching” proposals, which it says cuts 80% of spot checks and 50% of paperwork on goods moving here from the mainland.

However, there are so many caveats and exceptions that these figures are difficult to sustain.

The May government’s former trade and EU specialist, Raoul Raparel, thinks the text of the documents is “very vague”. On Twitter, he noted that many of Sefcovic’s assertions were not backed up by detail and concluded Brussels’ offer did not “live up to the hype”.

Similarly, the University of Ulster economist, Esmond Birnie, suggested that the EU may be exaggerating the ‘real reduction’ in checks.

Even the fiercely Europhile trade expert, David Henig, admitted “we would need to see fuller details than are currently available” to judge whether the EU’s plans lift its threat to Northern Ireland’s drugs supply.

Even if Brussels’ had offered clear solutions for businesses, though, there was still a glaring omission. The documents did not even try to address the protocol’s assault on the Act of Union and its dilution of UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland. It is these constitutional problems that explain why unionists oppose the deal so firmly.

The EU, the Dublin government and pro-Brussels politicians here have done everything they can to diminish these concerns. According to the co-opted nationalist MLA, Matthew O’Toole, they represent, “an obscure ideological obsession”.

Of course, such dismissals come from people who are either indifferent to British sovereignty in Northern Ireland or oppose it bitterly. The claim that NI’s place in the UK is not weakened substantially by the protocol is so absurd that it justifies that horrible, fashionable term; ‘gaslighting’.

The protocol hands the EU authority over significant aspects of our lives and puts us under the jurisdiction of its courts. It prioritises our economic links with Dublin, at the expense of our place in the British internal market. It requires our state aid and VAT regimes to diverge from the rest of the country. And it unpicks important parts of the Act of Union — the very constitutional document that stitched the United Kingdom together.

Equally absurd is the implication that none of this matters very much.

Northern Ireland’s economy is entirely reliant on being an integral part of the UK’s internal market. Our peace and stability are dependent upon the proper application of the principle of consent, which is rendered meaningless if key parts of the Union can be dismantled without the need for a border poll.

And the constitutional question is so central to politics here that most of us remember people being murdered for defending our place in the United Kingdom.

The Protocol created two separate but connected sets of problems. It imposed a ridiculously onerous and unnecessary regime of checks and paperwork, mainly, but not exclusively, affecting goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

More provocatively, it attacked our place in the United Kingdom and handed Brussels unaccountable authority over important aspects of our affairs, on the pretext that that was necessary to protect North-South links.

It’s progress that the government and the EU have reopened this dangerous, unbalanced deal. And, encouragingly, Lord Frost diagnosed many of the Protocol’s worst problems in his speech.

He reminded Brussels, “It is this government that governs Northern Ireland as it does the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is not EU territory. It is our responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity ... and that may include using Article 16 if necessary.”

There is now an opportunity to right the wrongs of the protocol. But the government must be firm this time and resolve for good the issues it creates for both trade and the Union.

• Other articles by Owen Polley below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter

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