Peter Robinson: Dublin should take care not to overplay its hand over Northern Ireland Protocol
Have you ever had the nightmare in which you are running at Olympic pace in front of a pursuing souped-up threshing machine?
No matter how fast or artfully you sprint or weave, it is always right behind you, waiting to churn you up if you falter or stumble.
I haven’t. But I know what it must feel like … and so do most unionists.
The principle of consent is a stipulated and foundational part of endless national and international laws and agreements.
Even most recently it was inserted in the Belfast Agreement and the legislation that flowed from it. But there are people who are not prepared to live with that legal reality.
These are the same people who, if the position was reversed, would savage unionists for not accepting legal provisions.
They refuse to accept what is, and instead relentlessly chase what is not. Does anyone think that having a border poll would change their modus operandi? Not a bit.
They would lose one day and recommence their agitation the next.
Happily, the Union is not maintained by legal statutes nor political agreements, it exists because it is the democratic will of the people who live here.
It is the settled view of the majority of people in Northern Ireland that they wish to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom. This is what is most pernicious about the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol removes the democratic right of the people who live here to exercise their right to self-determination.
It whittles down the integrity of Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom, steadily and by stealth, without authorisation from those who alone have the right to give or withhold consent, it diminishes our constitutional status. This is not a one-step reduction.
Worse, it allows for an ongoing erosion of the Union – and all without consent.
Sir Jeffrey has set out seven tests against which any new arrangement to replace the present protocol will be judged by the DUP. There is nothing in them with which any reasonable unionist could find fault. However, if Lord Frost’s Wednesday Statement and the accompanying Command Paper is analysed, it lacks any clear conviction, or even hint, that it is the government’s intention to meet those seven tests.
It would be tragic if a government that is chiding the EU for not listening, should itself be deaf to those of us in Northern Ireland who are bleeding under the protocol’s cosh.
Nonetheless, the government has accepted and publicly asserted that the deal they closed with the EU is damaging, unsustainable and must be renegotiated.
They properly set out its faults and deficiencies, its unacceptability and maintain “the burdens posed will multiply several times over”, when the grace periods end this autumn.
Surely it must now be impossible for the UK government to allow itself to be bullied by Brussels into dropping its demand for change.
As Lord Frost prepared to deliver his statement to the House of Lords, up popped the Republic’s EU Affairs minister, Thomas Burns, at the wheel of the ‘thresher’ intent on mowing down any notion of renegotiations.
He insisted that the protocol will not be renegotiated, and any solution must be found within the confines of the existing agreement.
Setting aside the spectacle of the Republic, that had to come cap in hand to Britain to help bail it out during its recent financial crisis, having the audacity to instruct the United Kingdom government on what it can and cannot do, they are simply politically and legally wrong.
Firstly, there is the Article 16 provision that allows the UK to force a renegotiation on some important elements of the protocol, but more significantly the UK is sovereign and can decide for itself how trade will be transacted within its own boundaries.
Moreover, the UK has more than a strong case if the matter is legally tested in the international court — a process that would take a considerable time to conclude.
The UK Command Paper is strong in its narrative and accurate in its analysis of the cost to Northern Ireland, of the continued operation of the protocol but it stops short of setting out what it will do if the EU remains belligerent.
There is reference to the UK being justified in triggering Article 16, but that only means they have to negotiate with an obstinate EU.
What unionists need to know is whether, if the EU remains unyielding, the UK government is prepared to act unilaterally. It is hard to see how they could take the significant step of publishing a Command Paper on the seriousness of the situation and fail to do anything about it.
Instead of their combative and intransigent approach to renegotiation the EU, and in particular the Irish Republic, should be seeking to join in finding a solution that neither disadvantages Northern Ireland economically nor constitutionally.
It doesn’t have to be a ‘we win – you lose’ outcome. It’s good to talk — isn’t it? It might be the best option for the Republic.
They should take care not to overplay their hand this time.
A failure to co-operate in a proper renegotiation might just result in them having to impose border checks on the island on behalf of the EU or alternatively on trade passing through and between the Republic and the rest of the EU.
That sounds like a doomsday scenario for the south.
Separation and chaos. A similar scenario to that which they have sought to visit upon Northern Ireland. Who knows where that might end?
Worsening relations with the UK and more difficult and costly trading with the EU.
That picture of increasing trading costs, leading to business losses and potential company collapses with no end in sight, is the image Northern Ireland faces now, but the tables could turn 180 degrees.
I would not wish that hopelessness upon any country.
We are approaching the protocol end game. The options are narrowing, and the clock is ticking.
It reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s stanza –
From a wild weird clime
that lieth, sublime,
out of space—out of time.
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