Ruth Dudley Edwards: Theresa May’s weakness is ultimately to blame for the Northern Ireland Protocol

I‘ve recently been reading too much about the UK-EU Brexit negotiations past, present and to come, and am delighted that at last some substantial work is being produced that answers some questions that have been bothering me for a long time.

By Ruth Dudley Edwards
Tuesday, 23rd November 2021, 2:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 23rd November 2021, 2:12 pm
EU President Jean-Claude Juncker greeting British Prime Minister Theresa May at the EU Commission in Brussels on Friday December 8, 2017 when the Irish backstop was agreed. Phone: Etienne Ansotte/EU/PA Wire
EU President Jean-Claude Juncker greeting British Prime Minister Theresa May at the EU Commission in Brussels on Friday December 8, 2017 when the Irish backstop was agreed. Phone: Etienne Ansotte/EU/PA Wire

For instance, how exactly did we get into the disaster zone under Prime Minister Theresa May that landed us into the mess we’re in at the moment with the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Is there an honourable way out?

Roderick Crawford’s superb The Northern Ireland Protocol: The Origins of the Current Crisis, was published at the beginning of November by Policy Exchange, a think tank that — like Crawford — takes a great deal of interest in Northern Ireland.

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Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author and commentator, who writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'

The blurb describes it as the story of how the UK got stuck with a protocol “that was determined by a one-sided and flawed interpretation of the Belfast Agreement,” was “a diplomatic triumph for Ireland and the commission” but that “failing to secure adequate reciprocal concessions was a staggering failure for the UK”.

Crawford is one of a rare breed — a painstaking political analyst with an open mind and a passion for accuracy. In 1992 he founded the London-based Parliamentary Brief, an independent weekly very well respected by “the political in-crowd”.

He has worked for some years on conflict resolution in Iraq, the Sudan and Yemen, and since 2017 he has taken a deep interest in the protocol.

The foreword to the report was provided by Lord (David) Frost — a career diplomat who like most of his colleagues began as a Europhile but unlike them gradually became disillusioned.

Uninvolved with the negotiations under May, he was horrified by the Joint Report of December 2017 which by keeping the UK in the customs union and much of the single market destroyed what he considered “a meaningful Brexit”.

He had then, he said, two thoughts: “First, if I resign over this, how will I ever explain what it is all about?”’ And second, “how did we ever come to agree to this?”

The EU, he would learn from Irish and other sources, was asking the same question, and some some could see that the British government’s unexpected acceptance of a deal that prioritised North-South dimensions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement over the others guaranteed that unionists would not support it.

With clarity and objectivity, Crawford has produced an authoritative chronological explanation of what happened and why.

It’s more that 40,000 words long and not many journalists are likely to read it, but historians will, and so will politicians, diplomats and business people for whom it is an invaluable case study in how not to conduct international negotiations that should be on many a curriculum for years to come.

Lord Frost draws three conclusions from the report.

The UK “had drifted into accepting the EU’s view that the only way to ensure no ‘hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls was for the laws on either side of the border to be identical,’” and this although there was already on the island an international, open border “with different currency systems, laws, taxation, and many trading rules”.

We “hadn’t made the necessary mental shift” from being an EU member of 45 years to negotiating an exit, which made us “too slow to adopt a robust enough negotiating position”.

The EU had made no such mistake, and weaponised Ireland through the obedient Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

It had the advantage that the UK government after the June 2017 election was extremely weak both in parliament: its own members did not agree on how or even whether we should be leaving the EU.

Tom McTague is a London-based journalist who writes for the Washington-based Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that encourages its writers to keep their minds open.

Tweeting about the Crawford report he described its crucial point was that the EU “forced” Prime Minister May “to accept a solution that worked legally for the EU but worked neither operationally nor politically in the context of Northern Ireland”.

It was no surprise that her successor, Boris Johnson concluded that the only way to be successful with the EU was to be very tough indeed and send in Frost as an attack dog.

In his fascinating article in last week’s Atlantic — ‘An Unlikely Threat to the Western Alliance’, McTague challenges the view that any move by Johnson to undo the protocol will lead to the return of a land border and challenge the peace settlement. “This ignores that the status quo ... is itself now a destabilising factor.”

So five years on, he ends, “we are back to square one, with each side effectively declaring that no deal is apparently better than a bad deal. This would represent a total failure of politics — one that would damage not only Northern Ireland but Britain and Europe as well, and so, by extension, the Western alliance more broadly. A plague on all your houses”.

I’m an optimist by temperament.

We can allow this wearing dispute to drag on and on and on, we can bring it to a destructive head, or our negotiators can find a solution that puts Northern Ireland first.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is no Leo Varadkar.

There is hope.

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