Why is the Northern Ireland protocol still an issue? Actions have consequences

Ask a stupid question and you get a stupid answer. los Irlanda del Norte protocol is a stupid answer: it imposes a complex bureaucracy on the movement of ordinary goods across the Irish Sea. But it is the only possible response to a problem created by Boris Johnson. The reason it keeps coming around again and again, like a ghoul on a ghost train, is that it requires Johnson and his government to do something that goes against the grain of the whole Brexit project: to acknowledge that choices have costs.

There used to be a gameshow on American radio and TV called Truth or Consequences. It was so popular that a whole city in New Mexico is named after it. It’s where we live now. In each episode, the contestant was asked a deliberately daft question – and when they failed to answer it, they had to perform a zany or embarrassing stunt.

We’ve reached that point in the Brexit show. The question is: why did you divide one part of the UK from the rest, creating a chimerical country in which most of the body is outside the EU’s single market while one foot is still inside? Since it is unanswerable, we get the embarrassing stunt: la demand that the EU should tear up a crucial part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – or else.

Or else what? Britain will unilaterally suspend the operation of the protocol, force-feed the people of Northern Ireland with good English sausage, trigger retaliatory trade sanctions from the EU, destroy Britain’s reputation as a trustworthy partner for any sane country and deeply antagonise the Biden administration in Washington with whom it is hoping to do a landmark trade deal. Good luck with all that.

Speaking on Wednesday, after he published his wildly unrealistic set of demands on the Northern Ireland protocol, which were flatly rejected on Thursday by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, the Brexit minister, David Frost, said negotiations with the EU “have not got to the heart of the problem”. That is about the only truth he uttered.

So what is the heart of the problem? It is not the great Ulster sausage famine. It does not lie in the complexities of phytosanitary standards or the mechanisms of legal interpretation – all of which could be solved with pragmatism and mutual trust. When this problem is dissected, the message written on its heart will be: Boris Johnson is constitutionally incapable of accepting the relationship between cause and effect.

The protocol itself may be complicated, both in its dense technocratic language and in its practical operation. But behind it lies a stark and simple reality. Johnson and the rest of the Brexiters had a choice to make. They could cut the UK off from the EU’s single market and customs union. Or they could prioritise the integrity of the UK itself.

They could not do both – and they still can’t. The dreary soap opera of the protocol is driven by their need to wish away this unpleasant fact. You can’t bake your “oven-ready” Brexit deal and then remove one of the main ingredients from the final dish. The EU has far better things to be doing than making a return trip to the hellish tedium of Brexternity. But for Frost and Johnson, impossible is nothing. Performative belligerence is not bounded by the limits of what can be achieved. Its main function, Por supuesto, is the denial of reality.

Reality, in this case, is the existence within the UK of a very complex, ambiguous, troubled and fragile place: Irlanda del Norte. There is a good reason why, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, the Vote Leave campaign assiduously avoided the question of what would happen to this awkward polity if the UK left the EU. If you’re offering a three-word slogan as your proposition to voters, you really don’t want to start mapping the future of a border with more crossings than the entire eastern flank of the EU and a history that is every bit as entangled as its geography.

But the repressed returns. Theresa May, for all her haplessness, at least had the honesty to face two truths. One was that there could not be a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. The other was that, in order to avoid it, Britain would have to choose between equally unpalatable alternatives.

Because it is inextricably entwined with the rest of Ireland, and therefore with the EU, Northern Ireland was always going to have to stay very closely aligned to the single market. The British government could deal with this fact in one of two ways. It could put the union first and decide that the same regime of alignment would apply to the whole of the UK. Or it could put a hard Brexit first and accept that separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK was a price worth paying for it.

May decided that the integrity of the union mattered most. Hence the infamous backstop, which shaped Brexit around the need to have the same rules for Northern Ireland as for Britain. Johnson and the ERG took the opposite decision. They traded the integrity of the union for the freedom of Britain to cut its ties to the European trading system.

It is worth recalling how quickly and nonchalantly Johnson made this choice. He did it in 90 minutos, during a meeting with the then taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in the Wirral in October 2019. He grasped it as a lifeline to save himself – without that deal, his prime ministership might have been the shortest on record.

Recuerda, también, that the ERG made the same choice. Over the wails of betrayal from the DUP, the hardline Brexiters all decided that having the same rules for the whole of the UK was less important than achieving their version of freedom.

This would be fair enough, were it not for the great cloud of unknowing that hangs over everything to do with Brexit. What refuses to be known is the connection between choices and outcomes. The basic proposition that the way you make your bed is the way you lie has never been accepted by the British government.

That government is now effectively blaming remainers for the protocol – if they hadn’t caused so much trouble in parliament, poor Johnson would never have signed up to it. The argument is that the political chaos unleashed by Brexit frees the very people who created it from any responsibility for their own decisions. It is the excuse familiar to magistrates: sorry, guv, but we were awfully drunk at the time.

The choices, in this pitiful pleading, were never really made at all. They have vanished. But the same, alas, cannot be said for the consequences – especially for the people of Northern Ireland. They have to live with effects that, in Johnson’s retelling of the story, were accidental and unintended. The three-word slogan of Brexit has been replaced by a four-letter word: oops.

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