There is something Putinesque about the government’s framing of its Noord-Ierland protocol bill. It is almost the opposite of what Boris Johnson, his man in Belfast, Brandon Lewis, and the hardline backbenchers he’s appeasing claim it to be.
Leave to one side that it trashes Britain’s reputation. That it was conceived in London as a solution to the Northern Ierland Brexit conundrum. That it reneges on the withdrawal agreement Johnson and his lieutenant, David Frost, negotiated with the EU. Never mind that it breaks an international treaty the UK signed. Forget very old-fashioned notions of truth, sticking to your word, trust and obeying international law.
Instead focus upon its real purpose: dog-whistling to Johnson’s base by triggering a humongous row with the old villain Brussels because that worked so well in the 2016 Brexit referendum. And keep that going – if at all possible – all the way to the next general election.
Johnson chunters that the protocol breaches the Good Friday agreement, yet it’s his own bill amending it that is opposed by all of the main Northern Ireland political parties except the Democratic Unionist party, by the business community which fears yet more disruption and instability, and by civil society groups that have been trying to make the protocol work.
It’s not the EU that has been gridlocking the negotiations to get rid of the protocol’s rough edges, it’s Johnson’s failure along with first Frost and now Liz Truss to negotiate seriously.
Having myself negotiated as a government minister with the EU, all the parties in Northern Ireland and in the UN security council – winning good deals for Britain – I know that building trust is key to getting concessions from the other side. But Johnson et al have destroyed trust in Brussels, Belfast, Dublin and Washington DC.
Why should Brussels make the concessions necessary when it suspects Johnson will simply pocket these and up the ante yet again? The EU is far from blameless in all this mess, but it is very ready to make changes. It’s offered to do so, including a willingness to explore “red and green channels” respectively for goods heading into the EU across the Irish border, and those confined to Northern Ireland alone. There’s a deal to be done. We’ve taken shedloads of evidence in our protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland subcommittee in the Lords confirming that.
The question is: does Johnson really want one? Or does he prefer the parallel universe blame game that resonates with his supporters but won’t solve the problem, because to do so would irrevocably mean compromises like the ones he and Frost made in signing the protocol in the first place?
The truth is Northern Ireland always was going to be Brexit’s achilles heel. Because after Brexit, Europe’s external frontier had to be somewhere. For England, it would be Calais. For Northern Island, it would be either across the island of Ireland – toxic, unthinkable and undeliverable in Brussels, Dublin and Washington DC because it would ditch the Good Friday peace process. Or in the Irish Sea, watter Boris Johnson casually opted for “to get Brexit done”.
What might be the solution? Start with the roots of the problem. Johnson’s dogmatists insisted upon a hard Brexi that required the UK to “take back control” and break free from EU rules, whether on food safety or manufacturing standards. Yet the integrity of the EU’s single market requires those rules be respected and legally enforceable.
So Johnson’s very own Brexit means there has to be some sort of customs and regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And control of it under the supposedly iniquitous protocol has been delegated by the EU for the very first time to a non-member state – the UK.
Remember also that there have long been light-touch controls on movement of plants and livestock from Great Britain into Northern Ireland – a “border” of sorts necessitated by the island of Ireland being a single, distinct biosphere.
Some give and take could resolve the current problems over food products coming from Great Britain into Belfast or Larne in a manner that did not leave unionists understandably feeling their identity was being threatened by being separated from the rest of the UK.
Time-consuming paperwork could readily be replaced by electronic fast-tracking of goods if London was willing to share data in real time with Brussels, something Johnson has so far refused to do.
According to legal advice we’ve seen in our Lords committee, amendments to the protocol are possible within the withdrawal treaty. And if trust is rebuilt – a big ask given Johnson’s dishonesty and posturing – I’m sure the EU could agree to them.
But how can it be reasonably expected to do so when the bill gives UK ministers massive unilateral powers to change anything they deem necessary in the protocol – an international treaty?
Then there’s the “democratic deficit”. The DUP complains that rules will be made in Brussels over which Northern Ireland has no say. Fair point. The answer is to give Northern Ireland ministers and legislators consultative rights both in Brussels institutions, through the Joint EU-UK committee overseeing the protocol, and through adapting existing cross-border bodies in Dublin.
Remember that Northern Ireland voted in 2016 to stay in the EU, not for Brexit. Out of five main political parties, only one backed Johnson’s hard Brexit: the DUP. Polls show most people in Northern Ireland support the protocol. All the parties want it amended, its implementation smoothed, so that Northern Ireland – now with much faster economic growth than England, Scotland or Wales – can continue to enjoy the best of both worlds in the UK and EU single markets as the protocol delivers.
But remember also that Johnson’s express objective is for the UK to diverge from EU regulations. That means Northern Ireland diverging increasingly from the rest of the UK – unsettling for the DUP, but then it voted for it.
What pains me most is that the current batch of Tory leaders don’t really give a fig for Northern Ireland, don’t even understand it, and don’t know how to play the “honest broker” role John Major extolled and Tony Blair exemplified.
I genuinely felt that the 2007 devolution settlement I helped negotiate under Blair had ended the horror and cemented hope. We felt that by bringing the old blood enemies, the DUP and Sinn Féin, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, to share government together, die Good Friday agreement would be locked in, over time deepening peace, stability and inclusive democracy. Ongelukkig, while the vandals now in charge of Britain run amok, I’m not so sure any more.