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You might have been forgiven for forgetting that the Northern Ireland Protocol was still in place, over the summer. Politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea, and in Brussels, effectively took a break from this unfinished piece of Brexit business. Unfortunately, for traders and consumers in the province there was no time-out from disrupted supply chains and higher prices caused by the EU’s land-grab in Ulster.
Just before summer recess, the Government published a ‘command paper’, setting out its plans to remove the checks and bureaucracy between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Then, as parliament returned for a new term last week, Lord Frost announced that the UK would unilaterally extend ‘grace periods’ that have, so far, kept food moving into the province, despite the Protocol’s punishing provisions.
The Government’s statement followed warnings from Marks and Spencer that Northern Ireland was facing a “substantial reduction in food supply” before Christmas. At the start of September, the Stormont health minister, Robin Swann, revealed that more than 900 medicines were due to be withdrawn from the province’s health system due to the Protocol, while 2,400 more were “at risk” of withdrawal.
The decision to extend grace periods delays a food crisis in Northern Ireland, but it does not solve the economic and constitutional problems created by the Irish Sea border or provide certainty for businesses or consumers. Last week, the Democratic Unionist Party’s leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, underlined the urgency of reaching a more lasting deal with Brussels, during a heavily publicised speech at the La Mon Hotel in Belfast.
Donaldson announced that the DUP, which is the biggest party in the Stormont executive, would withdraw its ministers from North-South meetings with their counterparts from the Republic of Ireland, until the issues with the Protocol are resolved. The Belfast Agreement created a series of cross-border bodies, but unionists argue that it cannot be “business as usual” for these groups while other elements of the peace deal are seriously undermined.
In addition, Donaldson promised that DUP ministers will refuse to enforce new or more rigorous checks at Irish Sea ports. “If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the Protocol in its current form,” the DUP leader said, “then the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold that office.”
He implied that, if the EU continues to insist that the deal cannot be changed significantly, and if our government refuses to suspend its most damaging features, then power-sharing in Northern Ireland will collapse. Donaldson’s strategy could be interpreted as a threat to Boris Johnson and the Conservatives. But, equally, it strengthens the UK’s case for renegotiating the Protocol.
At the same time as the DUP stiffened its tone, Maros Sefcovic visited Northern Ireland. The EU Commission vice president addressed an audience of keen and compliant Europhiles, at Queen’s University. In front of this friendly congregation, he dismissed the idea that the Protocol needs to be renegotiated, emphasising that Brussels is prepared only to discuss “flexibilities”. Splitting up the UK with an internal border, he insisted, is not a problem, but rather part of the “solution” to Brexit.
In response, Lord Frost warned the EU that the government is prepared to trigger Article 16 if its concerns are not addressed properly. This “emergency brake” permits either side to suspend aspects of the Protocol under certain conditions. The potential collapse of the devolved government in Northern Ireland bolsters his contention that the Irish Sea border has caused instability in the province, as well as diverting trade.
For the first time in months, there are signs of choreography between ministers at Westminster and unionists in Ulster, as they attack the worst aspects of the Protocol.
It’s important to recognise, though, that the Protocol raises two separate but related sets of problems. Firstly, there are the practical barriers to trade, which one of Northern Ireland’s most respected and understated economists recently estimated are costing its economy £850 million per year. Perhaps even more importantly, there are constitutional issues that the architect of the Belfast Agreement, Lord Trimble, says risk “a return to sectarian strife.”
Brussels quite specifically intended the Protocol to loosen Northern Ireland’s ties with the rest of the United Kingdom and strengthen its links to the Republic of Ireland and the EU. The government’s command paper merely proposed ideas to allow GB goods to flow freely to the province again and protect British standards and regulations in an integral part of the UK. It is, in other words, the minimum that unionists could accept and not a starting position for negotiation.
The government must face up to the fact that it imposed a deal that cut Northern Ireland off from the UK’s economy and politics, in order to force through its Brexit agreement. It was an act of constitutional recklessness, based seemingly on a naive idea that it could sort out the mess afterwards.
So far and quite predictably, things haven’t worked out like that. For that reason, there remains an overwhelming moral responsibility on Boris Johnson and Lord Frost to deal with the Protocol and repair the Union, even if it risks short-term damage to the UK’s relationships with the EU and the Republic of Ireland.