Protocol Bill should accompany a deal, not be replaced by it

News Letter editorialNews Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
News Letter Morning View on Thursday September 29

BB NI found itself at both an organisational and theological crossroads. The Brigade in Northern Ireland has wisely decided to separate from the organisation in the rest of the UK and Ireland. A resolution to establish a new BB Northern Ireland (BBNI) organisation was also passed at an annual general meeting recently.

Simon Coveney has been one of the most consistently partisan Irish ministers in years.

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Mr Coveney has crossed the Atlantic to forge coalitions against the UK approach to Brexit after the 2016 vote. He has at times seemed almost a shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and he pushed for nationalist demands such as an Irish language act in earlier Stormont talks.

It is only fair then to note that he struck a strikingly conciliatory tone at Hillsborough Castle yesterday. He talked about the need for solutions to address concerns in Northern Ireland about the protocol (which seems to show he has an understanding of unionist fears). He specifically referred to a three stranded approach to future relations, which is important because in the last talks to restore Stormont, after the Sinn Fein collapse of 2017 to 2020, both unionists and the latter secretary of state, Julian Smith, allowed the three strands to be torn up and Ireland to co preside over a deal that delved deep into Strand One (ie Northern Ireland) matters.

There has for at least a year been a more flexible Irish approach to the problems with the Irish Sea border. The country has come closer to acting as UK-EU bridge over the impasse rather than an EU loyalist. All of this is welcome.

There is, however, still reason to be concerned by yesterday’s talks between Mr Coveney and the new NI secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris. The Irish foreign minister referred to the “quite different” messages coming from London compared to months ago. This raises memory of a question we put to Liz Truss in the summer — if she would commit to complete passage of the NI Protocol Bill? She did not give such.

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The UK rhetoric is now that the bill will proceed unless there is a deal. But that implies it won’t if there is a bill. However, the legislation is itself a major compromise because in many respects it is a framework to protect sovereignty, not a full return of such. Thus it should go in tandem with a deal, not be substituted by one.