OPINION - UK and EU strike Northern Ireland Protocol deal

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

The genius of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), also known as the Belfast Agreement, was that it achieved more than a compromise. The document is reasonably short and worth reading in full, if for no other reason than you might bump into Lady Sylvia Hermon in the street.

The GFA was both a peace deal and a political one. It helped to put an end to thirty years of violence, known as the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s and lead to the death of some 3,500 people, half of whom were civilians.

It helped to establish a new power-sharing government, facilitated disarmament and the abolition of border checks. It also recognised the right of the people living on the island of Ireland to bring about unification on the basis of consent, “freely and concurrently given” in both the North and the South.

A large part of its success was the political. Not only in building up those democratic institutions but grounded in the fact that people in Northern Ireland could live their lives with their identities respected and fulfilled. So a majority could one day vote to bring about a united Ireland while at the same time, unionists could live in the same place and feel it was, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “as British as Finchley”.

Brexit therefore represented a material change – and a threat. The UK and Ireland had joined the then European Economic Community at the same time in 1973. Maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland was therefore always going to be a key priority of the government, not least because anything less would place the UK in breach of the GFA.

But an open border would require either the whole of the UK adhering to EU regulations (a UK-wide backstop, if you will) or a hard border in the Irish Sea. The Conservatives eventually opted for a version of the latter, and Boris Johnson negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol. This has caused deep unhappiness within unionism and the DUP in particular (though the Protocol retains widespread support across other parties in Northern Ireland.)

The point of these latest negotiations was to address the concerns. And indeed Rishi Sunak appears to have secured substantive changes to the Protocol. They include (though I’m writing very close to publication) a green lane to distinguish goods heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from those continuing onto the EU, changes to state aid regulations and reducing the so-called democratic deficit – what Sunak has called a “powerful new safeguard”. These are real changes – don’t forget, the EU’s starting position was that the Protocol must be implemented in full.

There’s another prize on offer too. That the EU and UK can move on to addressing wider deficiencies within the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, including facilitating Britain’s entry into the Horizon research programme. Sunak will also hope that a deal with strengthen his hand with Tory backbenchers while boosting his position in the country.

Of course, a deal between the UK and EU is one thing. Getting the DUP to ‘yes’, a party not famous for uttering that particular word, is another. At present, there is no Northern Ireland Executive as the party has thus far refused to form an Executive until the Protocol is addressed to its satisfaction. It is far from clear what happens next, whether the DUP can claim today’s deal addresses its seven tests and therefore when power-sharing can be restored.

Ultimately, this agreement will only stick if all sides – EU, UK, Ireland, Conservative backbenchers and the parties in Northern Ireland – recapture that spirit of compromise encapsulated by the historic agreement signed 25 years ago this April.

Elsewhere in the paper, chancellor Jeremy Hunt is facing pressure to use next month’s Budget to scrap plans to raise the government’s cap on household energy bills to £3,000 a year from April. In addition to the rise of £500, households are also set to lose out on the £400 energy bills support scheme put in place last May.

In the comment pages, Stephen King says if you’re looking for green shoots of recovery, sadly, they probably don’t exist. While Melanie McDonagh is putting a positive spin on our present vegetable crisis, in arguing that we should embrace seasonable eating.

And finally, depending on your view of today’s newsletter, I’ve either wholeheartedly embraced or eschewed ‘bare minimum Monday‘, the latest alliterative work trend.

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