Welcome Lord Frost speech contrasts with ex civil servant’s essay

News Letter editorial on Friday April 29 2022:

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

This week has seen two dramatically different assessments of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister, said that the Irish Sea border had left the Belfast Agreement “hanging by a thread”.

Dr Andrew McCormick, a former civil servant, said that the responsibility for the protocol lies “fairly and squarely” with Boris Johnson and his ministers.

Dr McCormick was once a frontrunner to be head of the NI civil service. He was then a Brexit lead in the Stormont executive, and so he often attended ministerial meetings. In an article for The Constitution Society, he has written: “There is little credibility in any argument that the UK government either did not anticipate the implications of what it had agreed, or was constrained and unable to choose any other option.”

Lord Frost in his (very welcome) speech to the think tank Policy Exchange, however, specifically addressed the extent to which the UK government was constrained by the so-called ‘surrender’ Benn Act in 2019 when it agreed the protocol.

For Dr McCormick to assess the context in which the protocol was agreed is one thing. Many unionists fear that the government did indeed fully understand what it was agreeing. But for him to assess its merit is another. He does this when he says that no credible solution “that is better than the Protocol has been identified” in six years of thinking on the matter of the Irish land and sea borders.

His comments are telling because they seem to represent what you might describe as an unelected Northern Ireland ‘new establishment’ view. Who in the business representative groups spoke out against the disaster of barriers to what is by far that of NI’s most important trade, with Great Britain? Or in academia? How many commentators in the media?

And while government officials were neutral, there were a range of sectors in which senior employees of the state seemed to be quick to make public their predictions of problems or dangers of any change at all at the Irish land border.

There is speculation that the Queen’s Speech will include legislation to suspend the appalling protocol in absence of a negotiated deal. Let us hope that speculation is well founded.

Essays by the three unionist party leaders: