This is a radical UK plan to overturn the protocol

If any unionists doubted the commitment of Boris Johnson to Northern Ireland, they should read last week’s White Paper on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Wednesday, 28th July 2021, 4:27 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th July 2021, 4:30 pm
Lord Frost and Boris Johnson, pictured in Downing Street in December at the end of the transition period, are serious about re-negotiating the Irish Sea border

The radical nature of the white paper is disguised by the temperate and measured language of its author, David Frost, a former diplomat.

In fact, the document proposes to overturn the current protocol and replace it with something much more to unionist liking.

Out would go any checks on goods brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Instead checks would only take place on goods destined for the Republic of Ireland.

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Businesses in NI would be able to operate on UK regulations and not as at present have to solely observe EU rules.

Medicines would be dropped altogether from the protocol. To protect the EU’s single market the government would insist that any goods heading across the land border observe EU regulations, as would be the case for EU imports from anywhere in the world.

While stating that it is not the UK government’s intention to throw the protocol overboard, what is proposed here is essentially a new protocol.

The preference is to introduce this in collaboration with the EU though neighbourly dialogue.

The UK is within its rights to invoke article 16 of the protocol which allows either side to suspend aspects of the protocol in the event of ‘serious societal or economic difficulties’ or ‘diversion of trade’.

Both have already occurred in Northern Ireland, but the government views the terms of article 16 as narrow and prefers to go for a more comprehensive and agreed restructuring of the protocol.

Newspaper reports suggest that Boris Johnson has been infuriated by the EU’s intransigence in talks over the last six months and would prefer to invoke article 16 now.

Those who have accused the PM of betrayal over the protocol have never fully understood the difficulties he faced in late 2019 when blocked by Parliament’s Benn Act robbing him of any bottom line in the ongoing Brexit negotiations with the EU. He was left in a position of having to either drop Brexit (which he had promised to deliver) or to give into EU demands for a trade border in the Irish Sea. Understandably he chose the latter but did manage to insert a break clause allowing the NI Assembly to drop the protocol after four years if it wished to.

Insiders say that Johnson was the last to accept this course of action as his advisors persuaded him that it was the only way forward. He then appointed the estimable Lord Frost to lead the trade negotiations followed by the talks on implementing the protocol. The EU has hated having this tough opponent and yearn for the days of Theresa May and Olly Robbins which were much more to their liking (despite having treated them almost as badly as they now do Johnson and Frost).

The PM has fully and bravely backed the new hard line in the White Paper despite the fact that there are few votes and no ‘red wall’ seats in it for the Conservatives. His motives appear to be straightforwardly pro-union, preserving the territorial integrity of the UK and redeeming his promise to avoid checks in the Irish sea.

For the EU, these proposals are explosive. They reverse most of what they have achieved on the protocol over the last five years. Strangely this revolutionary statement of intent has thus far received a very muted response from the EU or Ireland.

Unlike the Juncker era when similar British attempts were haughtily dismissed as ‘delusional’ or ‘magical thinking’, the white paper was met by only a chirrup of objection from Brussels which simply said it would not renegotiate the protocol. The Irish Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, was briefed by Boris Johnson prior to publication but has said nothing. There have been no howls of anguish from the Irish press and the usual Olympian rebukes from Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney have been notable by their absence.

The imminence of the summer holidays may have led a tired EU Commission to leave the Command Paper in their in-trays until September. Alternatively, they may have decided that this revolt by the British needs careful consideration rather than swatting away. Either way, the seriousness of what has just happened has not really entered the public domain, either in the UK or in the EU.

Although the UK government talks in measured tones of changing aspects of the protocol, we should be in no doubt that what is being proposed is a radically different set of arrangements, much more amenable to unionist opinion in Northern Ireland.

A head-on clash between London and Brussels now looks inevitable.

When asked how the UK will react to a probable blank refusal by Brussels to even discuss the proposals, No. 10’s line is that ‘we hope EU will move’.

This may sound Micawberish, but the EU would be wise to reset the Northern Ireland arrangements in order to get a rapidly deteriorating political difficulty off their backs. The threat to the EU’s single market is small and growing opposition from both Whitehall, and from a newly confident and more determined DUP, mean that the difficulties will only get worse in the autumn and beyond.

If the EU continues to refuse to negotiate, the British side say they are determined to see radical changes through. What this means in practice remains to be seen but we can perhaps anticipate further unilateral extensions of the current grace periods, invoking article 16, and perhaps in the end a unilateral new agreement.

The UK government wants to avoid the inevitable trade and diplomatic crisis this will involve. It takes two to tango and it would be in the EU’s interest to establish better relations at little real cost to themselves.

• Dr Graham Gudgin is Policy Exchange’s Chief Economic Adviser. He was Director of the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre and a Special Adviser on Economics to the First Minister in the NI Assembly, David Trimble

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