Brexit: Constructive ambiguity needed to solve latest standoff over Northern Ireland Protocol

·3-min read

For 30 years, intractable problems in Northern Ireland have been solved through the embrace of constructive ambiguity rather than allowing one side to decisively take an advantage.

Diplomats say another dollop of constructive ambiguity is now exactly what's required to solve the latest standoff over checks on goods going between GB and NI, and the EU complaints that the UK is failing to carry them out under a timetable agreed by Boris Johnson's government last December.

The EU says the failure to implement the plan, the Northern Ireland Protocol, is leaving the EU single market potentially exposed to unfair competition and substandard food products which could pose health risks.

The UK replies the EU is being inflexible even by asking to implement agreements they signed up to, standards on food are currently very similar and the checks in the Irish Sea undermine the unionist community's sense of identity and belonging to the wider United Kingdom - and hence stability.

This is all about to get worse when, from July, the UK government is meant to implement checks on more supermarket food - chilled meats - going to Northern Ireland's shops.

The UK is reluctant and currently suggesting it may just ignore this agreement, which on Wednesday Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice president, made clear could open the way to fines, tariffs and the EU withdrawing co-operation in other areas.

All sides will need to step back from such hardline positions to get through this latest row - meaning lowering the rhetorical tone and probably accepting they will all need to turn a blind eye to some of their problems they are complaining about at the moment - if they want to avoid an all-out trade war between the UK and the EU.

But the opposite is currently happening, and positions have hardened.

The augurs are not good, given the issue under discussion on Wednesday is a variation on the same one that has bedevilled all the Brexit talks since 2016.

Politicians on all sides had hoped vastly complicated issues about trade inspections and paperwork is not routinely the bedrock of questions of national identity.

But that has not been achievable, with the change of DUP leadership ensuring unionists in Northern Ireland now decisively reject the protocol.

All is not completely lost.

The EU is still trying to come up with solutions, putting forward a part time deal to align EU and UK food standards which could be junked if the UK signed up to a trade deal at a later date.

The UK has not formally abandoned the protocol, as Northern Ireland unionists want him too.

However after Wednesday's meetings between Mr Sefcovic and Brexit minister Lord Frost, the EU representative said they were "very difficult".

Lord Frost said there was no breakthrough and the EU was adopting an overly rigid approach to the implementation of the protocol.

New DUP leader Edwin Poots said that "if Brussels is deaf to the problems, then our own government must act unilaterally to protect Northern Ireland".

Whilst talking will go on, solutions felt further away than at any point this year.