Owen Polley: The response of the main unionist parties to the appalling vandalism of the Irish Sea border has been inconsistent and inadequate

Is the Conservative government really planning to do anything about the Northern Ireland Protocol and, if so, what?

Monday, 9th August 2021, 12:08 pm
Updated Monday, 9th August 2021, 12:17 pm
You might expect London to trigger Article 16 when the EU confirms it won’t release its choke-hold on NI. But it is more likely the UK government sees the paper as an opening position for EU talks

Its attitude to this Union-busting agreement with the EU has so far been entirely inconsistent.

Firstly, it accepted a deal that blatantly put a trade border down the Irish Sea but denied that any such frontier existed.

Then it claimed it would protect the integrity of the UK’s internal market, even while checks, paperwork and other barriers to goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland were becoming part of everyday life.

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Now, the prime minister says he remains committed to the protocol in theory, but describes its provisions as unworkable.

His cabinet office minister, Lord Frost, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, published a ‘command paper’ recently demanding that these arrangements be renegotiated.

They argued that the conditions already exist to trigger the protocol’s emergency brake, Article 16, on the basis that Northern Ireland is experiencing social disruption and diversion of trade.

For the time being, though, the prime minister has declined to take this step, which would doubtless provoke temper tantrums in Brussels, Dublin and Washington. As a result, businesses and consumers will continue to struggle with the Irish Sea border’s effects, while the politicians largely forget about it over the summer.

They are likely to return to the issue properly only in the autumn, when the end of temporary ‘grace periods’ next threatens Northern Ireland’s food supply.

Perhaps by then Boris, Frost and the rest will be determined to impose their interpretation of the protocol, even if it means confrontation with the EU. But you wouldn’t bet your savings on that outcome.

When the government published its command paper, some of Boris Johnson’s supporters claimed it would eventually restore Northern Ireland’s position in the UK’s internal market and strengthen its place in the Union.

It’s worth remembering that many of the same people denied from the beginning that the protocol would have a serious impact, preferring to believe the prime minister’s bluster rather than analyse the content of the deal.

Admittedly, the government’s proposals would solve many of the worst problems with the Irish Sea border, if they were adopted in their entirety.

The glaring difficulty is that that is highly unlikely to happen.

When the protocol was negotiated initially, Brussels claimed it was needed to ‘protect’ its hallowed single market.

For that reason, its provisions were supposed to apply to goods ‘at risk’ of moving on into the EU, via the Republic of Ireland or another route, from ports in Larne and Belfast.

Unfortunately, this criterion was drafted in such a way that it covered every product that moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, unless it was specifically exempted.

After the protocol was agreed, but before it was implemented, the government claimed that exemptions would cover the vast majority of trade.

That might have been a reasonable expectation, if the EU had been prepared to be realistic, pragmatic and reasonable.

However, the government had already experienced years of Brussels’ stubbornness, legal nit-picking and viciousness, so its reliance on goodwill was hopelessly naive.

Predictably, the ‘joint committee’ set up to oversee the protocol used such a narrow definition of ‘not at risk’ goods that a House of Commons’ report noted an ‘indeterminate’ number of ‘imports’ to Northern Ireland from the mainland remained officially ‘at risk’.

The command paper tries to draw the EU back to the protocol’s original purpose of exempting most products from customs checks and paperwork, if they are coming here from Great Britain.

This is a modest suggestion, but it has already been rejected by Brussels and, most likely, it will continue to be rejected.

When the EU confirms in a month or so that it has no intention of releasing its choke-hold on Northern Ireland’s economy, you might expect the Conservatives to trigger Article 16.

If that is genuinely the intention, then the command paper represents progress. Remember that Edwin Poots claimed the government would unveil a “significant victory” on the protocol, before he was ousted as DUP leader.

However, it seems more likely that ministers in London will treat the document as if it were an opening position for new talks with the EU.

They will then negotiate backwards from this offer, which is the absolute minimum that unionists could credibly accept, and try to present some unimportant concessions by Brussels as if they were a new deal.

This may seem like a cynical assessment, but it’s based on watching every twist of the Brexit negotiations carefully over five years.

On that basis, you would imagine the leaders of Northern Ireland’s unionist parties will be anticipating the possibility of a similar outcome too.

They should be using any influence they have left in London to strengthen the government’s resolve and persuade decision-makers that minor tweaks to the sea border are not acceptable.

So far, though, Ulster unionism’s response to the UK’s internal border has been piecemeal, inconsistent and inadequate. It has been poor.

The bigger parties have practically opted out of providing any meaningful opposition to this appalling piece of constitutional vandalism.

If the government is not persuaded that unionists in Northern Ireland are determined to remove the protocol, will it really sour its relationship with the EU further by triggering Article 16 in the autumn?

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