Sam McBride: Northern Ireland is now a proxy battleground for the EU and the UK – and that is dangerous

Over recent weeks, a paradox has emerged: Boris Johnson says that he wants to remove the Irish Sea border, but is trying to save it; the EU says that it wants to keep the Irish Sea border, but is acting to make it unworkable.

Saturday, 6th March 2021, 7:01 am
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen are angry with each other – and Northern Ireland is the proxy battleground for their dispute

Mr Johnson has appeared discomfited, if not quite embarrassed, by the emergence of a physical border within the United Kingdom which he swore would be unthinkable and which he assured the public would not happen even when his own government made clear in writing that he had agreed to such an outcome.

Under pressure from the DUP – and, curiously, now from Tory backbenchers in the right-wing ERG faction – to effectively abandon the NI Protocol which creates the border, the Prime Minister has talked tough and acted soft.

As the person who agreed to the protocol, abandoning it would be an embarrassing admission that his critics were right, showing that his claims there would be no Irish Sea border to be either duplicitous or the product of a mind unable to comprehend the central details of the most important document he ever negotiated.

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More significantly, such a move would inevitably draw retaliatory action from Brussels. It would be remarkable for a populist to suddenly care so much about Northern Ireland that he would sacrifice the economic prosperity of the part of the UK which elected him for somewhere the Tories have almost no votes and about which he has shown scant interest.

Mr Johnson has given “assurances” – a word which does not carry the meaning attached to it by the dictionary when linked to Mr Johnson – that if necessary he will trigger Article 16 of the protocol to stop some of the red tape. However, he has done nothing to suggest that such a move is likely.

That context is key to understanding Mr Johnson’s move on Wednesday to unilaterally extend the grace periods which delay parts of the Irish Sea border from being implemented.

While interpreted by the EU as a provocative move to tear up their agreement, there is every reason to believe that this is Mr Johnson attempting – perhaps even desperately – to salvage the protocol from an EU which increasingly appears unaware of how it is undermining the deal.

In a video call with print journalists on Thursday, NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis – a loyal lieutenant of Mr Johnson’s in implementing the protocol – said so bluntly. Asked if the unilateral move was adding to tensions, he said “I would argue quite the opposite”, acknowledging that this is not what unionists want to hear.

In Mr Lewis’s telling, “the EU needs to understand and accept the lasting and the long impact that that Friday night action [to trigger Article 16 over vaccine protectionism] had”.

That night, Mr Lewis said, the EU claims about acting purely to defend the Good Friday Agreement were exposed. In his words, “they proved otherwise that Friday night”.

A key element of the government’s decision this week not to enforce parts of the new border relate to food crossing from GB to NI. Mr Lewis said that without urgent action, “there’s a very real risk that actually what we’ve had in a few weeks would have been back to the issues of empty shelves...[and] we’d have seen a further lack of confidence and undermining of the protocol itself...the work we’re doing is to ensure it doesn’t get further undermined.”

With a background in the food industry, Mr Lewis stressed that supermarkets work far in advance and the EU-UK negotiations were grinding along at a slow rate where one grace period expired a fortnight ago and a far greater hardening of the food border is due at the end of this month. Another last-minute deal would be of little help in those circumstances, he argued.

However, the EU and the Irish government were outraged, with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney saying that the EU was now dealing with a country it couldn’t trust.

Yet the Irish opposition to this move has been entirely procedural – they have for weeks accepted that the grace periods urgently need extended.

The European Commission’s position is less clear. Over recent weeks Maroš Šefčovič has argued that the Irish Sea border checks needed to be expanded, and has berated the UK for not implementing the protocol more rigorously.

At a time where the protocol is causing major practical and economic difficulties, where most of unionism is dismayed at the scale of what is involved, and when potentially dangerous levels of anger are building within loyalism, the EU appears blind to how its dogmatic approach appears to those it claims the protocol exists to protect.

The EU can plausibly argue that the Irish Sea border is necessary to protect its single market. But rather than make that nakedly economic argument, it has claimed that what it is doing is to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

The fact that almost all of unionism – including David Trimble, the key unionist architect of that Agreement – say that the protocol itself undermines the 1998 accord is implicitly dismissed by the commission’s actions.

Although the absence of an EU office in Belfast may partially explain the commission’s apparent ignorance of how it is perceived here, and it may also have mistakenly believed that Mr Johnson was representing unionism’s interests, it is remarkable that so long into the Brexit process the EU does not appear to understand some of the basic aspects of political division in a region whose peace it says has been central to its stance.

Even before the hardening of the Irish Sea border which is to come, its scale is becoming increasingly hard to justify. In staggering evidence to a Stormont committee on Thursday, Northern Ireland’s chief vet said that when one of the grace periods – that on moving GB supermarket goods into Northern Ireland – expires, the number of agri-food checks required at the Irish Sea border will be close to the number currently processed by the EU as a whole.

With just 12 vets at his disposal, Robert Huey said that he had told the commission that he was simply unable to undertake that level of work.

Dr Huey’s boss, Department of Agriculture permanent secretary Denis McMahon, told MLAs that food and plant safety checks currently only applied to 30% of the agri-food goods that will be potentially subject to the new processes when an exemption period for retail and supermarket goods expires.

Mr McMahon said that Northern Ireland was processing a greater volume of documentation “than all other entire countries across the European Union”.

Some in the EU have privately lampooned Brandon Lewis’s claim that there is no Irish Sea border and that comment showed the Secretary of State’s questionable understanding of how his words are received in Northern Ireland.

But it should alarm Brussels that even Mr Lewis sounds genuinely concerned that the EU does not comprehend that with which it is dealing.

The EU is now demanding that the UK abandon its unilateral action, with the European Parliament postponing ratification of the EU-UK trade deal in protest and the commission preparing for legal action Yet if the UK acquiesces – as it may well do – that would arguably further undermine support for the protocol, showing again to Northern Ireland that both the EU and the UK are prepared to put their procedural debates ahead of what both of them accept are serious practical difficulties here.

While both sides claim to care passionately about peace in Northern Ireland, increasingly this region appears to be a proxy battleground far from the centres of power in two large blocs where they can express frustrations with each other without consequence for areas about which they care more deeply.

Given Northern Ireland’s bloody history, the danger of such a stance ought to be self-evident.

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