Good Friday Agreement co-architect David Trimble says Irish Sea Border ‘rips up’ accord – and proposes alternative

The Government’s attempt to keep the Irish Sea border in place but mitigate its worst aspects is unacceptable, Conservative peer Lord Trimble has said.

Tuesday, 9th February 2021, 5:12 pm
Lord Trimble backed Brexit but said that the protocol ‘rips apart’ the Belfast Agreement

The former Ulster Unionist leader, who was a key architect of the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, said that “the astonishing and disturbing fact is that the Withdrawal Agreement and, in particular, the Protocol clearly rips the Good Friday Agreement apart.”

After the government initially denied that there was any Irish Sea border at all, and then tried to dismiss issues with the frontier as “teething problems”, last week Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove accepted that there were serious structural problems with the arrangements.

However, the senior Tory insisted that they could be resolved without ditching the Northern Ireland Protocol, which creates that border.

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Lord Trimble, who in an interview with the News Letter prior to the EU referendum set out his firm support for Brexit, said that “all the tinkering around the edges cannot undo the fundamental damage that the Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol will cause”.

Writing in the forward to the pro-Brexit think tank the Centre for Brexit Policy’s proposals to remove the current arrangements and replace them with an alternative previously rejected by the EU, Lord Trimble said: “The system requires each side to rely on the other to enforce their rules – not on border checks.”

He went on: “Since, under the protocol, the laws governing 60 per cent of economic activity in Northern Ireland would no longer be made at Westminster or by the devolved Assembly, but by an outside law-making body, the EU, and those laws would be subject to interpretation by a non-UK court, clearly the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would be changed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland as required by the Good Friday Agreement.
“Furthermore, there is no way in which the people affected by those decisions would even have a say in the making or application of them.”

Referring to the nature of the new border, he said: “The one thing that is clear is – given the size and cost of the posts being planned – the scale of checks envisaged is enormous. For example, the 44,000 square metres, £15m post at Larne in County Antrim does not indicate minimal checks.”

Former Secretary of State Owen Paterson and the DUP’s Westminster chief whip, Sammy Wilson, are among the Brexiteers involved with the group which is close to the right wing Tory ERG group.

Lord Trimble said that the mutual enforcement idea was a far better alternative to the current “half-baked” arrangements.

He said: “The system requires each side to rely on the other to enforce their rules – not on border checks...this is self-policing – it ensures that enforcement effort is focused on those issues that arise in the destination jurisdiction and is also pointed at the exporter as the source of the problem, rather than at everyone in a border control structure.

“Severe penalties would increase the effectiveness of the regime by acting as a deterrent.”

How alternative border proposal would operate

The Centre for Brexit Policy paper endorsed by Lord Trimble resurrects an old idea which had been raised by some Brexiteers when Theresa May was Prime Minister but which they believe is now relevant because people can see the problems with the Irish Sea border.

The paper proposes that ‘mutual enforcement’ by the UK and the EU of the other’s rules and standards, something the report’s authors argued is a “robust and viable” alternative to the Irish Sea border.

The report said: “Even at this late stage, Mutual Enforcement provides a better solution than the current flawed concept, which is still far from being implemented and ultimately will prove impossible to implement. Mutual Enforcement can be put in place quickly and yields a robust, long-term, viable solution.”

The proposal for mutual enforcement would mean no border anywhere, the report said, but would not rely on technology in the way that another Brexiteer proposal, from Shanker Singham, had suggested.

Under the proposal - and unlike the protocol – the UK and EU could diverge in their rules without creating a hard Irish or Irish Sea border, the authors said. That would be achieved by legislation in each jurisdiction which would allow UK regulations to be enforced in the EU and EU regulations to be enforced in the UK.

That would mean that if a sofa in Belfast stuffed with foam which did not meet EU fire safety standards was then exported for sale in Dublin, no one would stop it at the border.

However, it would be an offence for it to be sold in the Republic. Either the Irish authorities or the UK authorities could then prosecute the Belfast exporter.

The fact that in many areas it is likely that there will be no divergence in EU and UK rules, most items will not face any checks and the report’s authors argue that it will be a far less onerous way of managing the situation.

The scenario would not do away with customs declarations, but would move those to north-south - and without physical checks - rather than within the UK, as at present.

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