Henry Hill: Labour should rethink its lamentable attitude towards Northern Ireland

25 Nov

Louise Haigh’s comments that the Labour Party would be neutral in any future border poll on the status of Northern Ireland are not surprising. In fact, they reflect some improvement over her party’s historic position.

Prior to the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement, there was a considerable body of opinion on the Labour benches that actively supported Irish nationalism’s claim on British territory, and Harold Wilson once considered an ‘Algerian solution’ of complete, unilateral withdrawal from the Province. Its parliamentary alliance with the Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP), the constitutional nationalists, is an artefact of this historic stance.

However, it is the nature of progressive politics that a position that was a big step forwards a generation ago becomes backwards over time, and that is certainly true here.

Take that link with the SDLP. Labour use it to justify refusing to run candidates in Northern Ireland. This deprives voters there of the opportunity to pass judgement on one of the two parties ever likely to form a national government at Westminster, as well as depriving them of a moderate, centre-left pro-UK option at the ballot box.

In fact, for a long time Labour refused even to let residents of Ulster join as members, even as it banked the cash from the political levy paid by trades unionists there. It eventually took a defeat at court to end the ban, prior to which Labour HQ had directed would-be members, many of whom favoured Northern Ireland’s link with Great Britain, to join the separatist SDLP instead.

Even if Sir Keir Starmer refuses to do this, he should be much more careful about Haigh’s apparent attempt to conflate Labour’s political preference for neutrality with a Belfast Agreement obligation. It is no such thing.

Under the terms of that treaty, in the event of a border poll the Government is of course required to oversee the plebiscite in an impartial manner. That is not the same thing as a requirement on British political parties and activists from the mainland being banned from supporting their compatriots across the water during the campaign.

As for Sir John Major’s famous remarks about the UK having “no selfish or strategic interest” in Northern Ireland, it should go without saying that this does not preclude taking an unselfish, fraternal, and patriotic interest in Ulster’s place in the Union, which is every unionists’ duty.

Welsh Labour form alliance with Plaid Cymru

When pro-UK commentators and analysts are minded to defend Welsh Labour’s lamentable record on the national question, it is usually with the claim that Mark Drakeford is simply denying political space to Plaid Cymru.

This argument has never been especially compelling. The electoral strength of the formally separatist party is not the sole measure of the fortunes of Welsh nationalism. One must be quite credulous, or simply not paying attention, to hold Mark Drakeford up as a unionist of anything but the most mercenary sort.

But it suffered a hopefully fatal blow this week when the First Minister concluded a formal agreement to bring the Nationalists back into government in Cardiff Bay.

Although the deal stops short of being an actual coalition, more closely resembling the ‘Lib-Lab Pact’ of the late 1970s, it will see Labour and Plaid collaborating to deliver an agreed policy programme that will doubtless reflect both parties’ fixation on finding north-south ‘Welsh’ solutions rather than building links with the rest of the country.

Sturgeon insists she’s staying put

Nicola Sturgeon has attempted to close down speculation about her political future by insisting that she will see out the mandate she won at this year’s Scottish elections.

This would see the First Minister, who has been in post since 2014, remain in office until 2026.

Following the bruising experience of the Alex Salmond scandal, a failure to win an overall majority at Holyrood, flatlining support for independence, and growing fractures within the Scottish National Party, press reports have increasingly turned to the question of whether she might be looking at ‘a life after politics’.

Her retirement would certainly be a blow to the SNP. There isn’t any obvious candidate amongst the Nationalists’ junior ranks who possesses either Sturgeon’s political skill or her connection with voters, which remains a significant plank of the party’s electoral success.

David Frost: The Protocol has begun to damage the thing it was designed to protect. The EU must join us in returning to it.

1 Nov

Lord Frost is Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and former chief negotiator for Brexit.

Policy Exchange has performed a huge public service in publishing today Roderick Crawford’s meticulous analysis of the so-called “Joint Report” of December 2017.

He has written a piercing analysis which, for as long as the issues raised by the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland are not yet settled, will be of more than purely historical interest.

I may differ from Roderick on a few points of detail, but not on the overall assessment: that the Joint Report, so-called because it was an agreed document between the UK and the EU, is arguably the text that has done most to shape the terms of this country’s exit from the European Union.

As Special Adviser to Boris Johnson when Foreign Secretary, I was a close observer, rather than a participant, during the period covered by this document. I nevertheless have acute memories of it. As the Report circulated within government that December, it was immediately clear to us that a crucial pass had been sold in agreeing — unless an alternative was agreed with the EU, which it clearly would not be — to “maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” (paragraph 49 of the Joint Report).

Although efforts were made internally to persuade us that “alignment” really meant “equivalence” or “approximation”, we could see that that was not so, and that the effect of this commitment would be to keep the UK in the customs union and much of the single market and thus to destroy the prospect of a meaningful Brexit. This indeed turned out to be the outcome in the initial version of the Protocol from November 2018, via the famous “backstop”, an agreement which Parliament consistently refused to approve.

As I fielded furious calls from Brexiteers that December week, I had two thoughts in my mind. First, “if I resign over this, how will I ever explain what it is all about?” That was a valid question at that point. When all the politics were about how we got over the “sufficient progress” threshold to further talks, this point on Northern Ireland would seem to many like a technicality. By July 2018, this was no longer the case. The linkage between Ireland, the fanciful “Chequers” proposals, and the inexorable logic on which the then Government was embarked was all too clear. It has been with us ever since.

My second thought was “how did we ever come to agree to this?” We now know, from Irish and other EU sources, that the EU was asking itself the same question. Close observers could see that the North-South dimensions of the Belfast Agreement had been prioritised over its other dimensions, that the Report would not command any support from the unionist community, and that the British Government’s agreement to these provisions was wholly unexpected.

My answer is three-fold. First, we had drifted into accepting the EU’s view that the only way to ensure no “hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls” (para 43 of the Joint Report) was for the laws on either side of the border to be identical. This ignored the fact that there already was, and is, an international border, an open one, with different currency systems, laws, taxation, and many trading rules on either side.

Second, I do not think we had made the necessary mental shift from being a member of the EU to negotiating exit from the EU. While Olly Robbins was doing his level best to negotiate exit, UK diplomats were trying to participate in EU institutions as if we were a normal member state. Our collaborative instincts from 45 years of membership meant that we were too slow to adopt a robust enough negotiating position. It is very clear that the EU did not make the same mistake, and it was explicitly to reset this psychology on our side too that we withdrew UK diplomats from most EU meetings from August 2019.

Third, it is only fair to point to the extreme weakness of the UK Government after the June 2017 election, both in Parliament and in the lack of consensus amongst its key members about how and perhaps even whether we should be exiting the EU at all. The criticisms made of the Joint Report must be tempered by the difficult circumstances in which the negotiators found themselves, compounded as they were by the EU’s desire to maximise their leverage on Northern Ireland.

When Johnson returned, as Prime Minister, in July 2019, and I returned as Chief Negotiator for Brexit, we inherited that Parliamentary weakness too. Nevertheless we were able to re-establish a clear purpose for the Government and to reset the balance on two crucial points, set out in the Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk of August 19. The first was an unequivocal commitment to the Belfast Agreement and a clear statement that the backstop risked undermining the “delicate balance” between its three overlocking strands. The second was an explicit disavowal of the commitment to “alignment” in paragraph 49 of the Joint Report.

Despite this, in the short window of the next two months, we inevitably still operated within the intellectual and political framework set by the Joint Report. Our negotiating leverage had been cut away by the Benn-Burt Act, which made it impossible for us to leave the EU without a deal, and there was even an increasing worry that it might turn out to be impossible to deliver on the referendum result at all. Nevertheless we got a deal that took the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, out of the EU. The deal restored genuine agency to us for the future, by removing the backstop, which would have locked the whole country in the customs union and much of the single market and given the EU the key.

But we could not in the end escape the EU’s insistence on imposing its customs and goods rules in Northern Ireland. The best we could do was include mitigations and balances in the new Protocol — and, crucially, given all these uncertainties and political novelties, insert the principle that the functioning of the Protocol beyond 2024 required the explicit consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We knew, as did the Irish Government, that this new Protocol would require immensely sensitive handling. We understood that the East-West dimensions of the Northern Irish economy are in any circumstances vastly more important than its “all island” dimensions — and that the former not the latter were the economic lifeblood of the province. We knew, as some in the Irish Government would privately concede, that the balance between the three strands of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement had been upset by the approach taken in the Joint Report; and that the risk was that the EU’s approach to the Protocol would not be consistent with the explicit commitment to protect the Agreement, in all its dimensions.

Unfortunately the operation of the Protocol has not been adapted to these underpinning realities. It has begun to damage the thing it was designed to protect — the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The insistence of the EU on treating these arrangements as like any other part of its customs and single market rules, without regard to the huge political, economic, and identity sensitivities involved, has destroyed cross-community consent well before the four-year mark.

We also have the lived experience of aspects that are simply unsustainable in the long-term for any Government responsible for the lives of its citizens — like having to negotiate with a third party about the distribution of medicines within the NHS. That is why we must return to the Protocol and deliver a more robust, and more balanced, outcome than we could in 2019. I hope the EU will in the end join us in that. And in so doing we will, I hope, finally move beyond the intellectual framing that Crawford so ably describes.

Henry Hill: The SNP wrong to claim the Belfast Agreement is a template for Scotland

21 Oct

Earlier this week, the Times reported that Angus Robertson, the Scottish Government’s cabinet member for the constitution, wants to use the precedent set by the Belfast Agreement as justification for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

He argues that the Government should permit such a vote this year because it has been seven years since 2014, and that is the minimum time between border polls set out in the 1998 treaty. He further argues that the Scottish people have demonstrated what the paper terms “a clear mandate for independence” by giving such strong support to the SNP.

Suffice to say, this case is specious.

For starters, the seven-year period is the minimum allowed under the Belfast Agreement. Whilst there is an expectation amongst many nationalists that should the first ever be held, any subsequent will follow at seven-year intervals, there is no entitlement to a regular re-run of what would be an extraordinary high-stakes and divisive event.

Next, even the Agreement affords the Government huge leeway when it comes to authorising such a poll. The terms are not just that a majority of voters show support for holding a referendum, but that there is sustained support which suggests the separatists will win it. The criteria of this are not spelled out in detail, giving the Secretary of State huge discretion.

Scotland qualifies on neither count. There has been no evidence of sustained majority support for independence, nor even an imminent re-run of the vote. Efforts to dragoon the entire SNP vote behind separation fall foul of the assurances Nationalist leaders offered wavering voters ahead of the Scottish elections. Not that the terms of a flawed peace deal, negotiated with terrorists in extraordinary circumstances, apply to Scotland at all.

(As for Robertson’s comment about the United Kingdom being a “voluntary union”, in constitutional terms this simply isn’t the case. The decision to grant a referendum on leaving rests entirely with the central government.)

Last week, I wrote about now the Nationalists’ tactics and rhetoric show that they clearly feel the clock is ticking. They haven’t worked out a way to force a referendum onto a UK Government prepared to actually stand up to them, and their movement is under increasing strain on several different fault lines. Arguments such as Robertson’s, and their new tactic of hosing Scotland with pro-independence “junk mail”, seem to be more about keeping disaffected activists believing they have momentum than actually securing a vote.

For their part, the Government would be well-advised to steer clear of the whole thing and not give the argument the oxygen of publicity. Given that their intention is not to grant a referendum, there is no upside to engaging in a public debate about the mechanics of delivering one. (This is also why the Scottish Secretary should stop putting numbers on the level of support he thinks independence needs in the polls to justify another vote, it’s all downside.)

Daniel Hannan: Lord Frost’s speech yesterday exposed the staggering petulance of Britain’s Euro-zealots

13 Oct

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

“Well, you signed it!”

That, pretty much, is the entirety of the case against the Government over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ministers and officials keep patiently proposing ways in which the EU’s stated objectives could be met without disrupting Ulster’s economy and unsettling her politics.

“Yeah, well you signed it!”

David Frost and his team point to the harms: the extra costs loaded onto businesses, the trade diversion, the scheduled banning even of medicines.

“Should’ve thought of that before!”

They explain that the application is disproportionate. That there is no way that the EU actually needs to carry out 20 per cent of its external checks on 0.5 per cent of its trade. That there is plainly more going on here than a desire to check what might enter Co Cavan. That Brussels’ insistence on rabies shots for pets was not, by any stretch of the imagination, necessary or proportionate.

“Didn’t you read it before you signed?”

They draw attention to the political implications. They recall that the peace settlement in Northern Ireland rests on two pillars: first, an understanding that nothing important will be done with the support of only one of the two communities; second, a promise that there will be no change in the constitutional status of the Province except by a vote of its own inhabitants.

Yet all three Unionist parties are campaigning against the Protocol, and the surviving author of the Belfast Agreement, David Trimble, says the Protocol breaches its terms.

“Bet they’re feeling silly about backing Brexit now, eh, Unionist numpties!”

Frost’s team asks whether the EU is acting in good faith when it is so obviously trying to make life difficult. Its aim – stated publicly and repeatedly – is to force Britain into accepting its agrifoods regulations, so that we can’t buy beef from Australia rather than France or Ireland. Is this really a reasonable position?

“Well, you signed it!”

This has been the response, not just of online #FBPE maniacs, but of Europhile columnists, Irish politicians, Labour and LibDem front-benchers and, not least, EU negotiators. The reaction to Lord Frost’s temperate well-reasoned speech in Lisbon yesterday was a case in point. Rather than disagreeing with anything he had said, his opponents fell back on their favourite yah-boo attack line.

“The same minister who, just months ago, was trumpeting the Government’s botched Brexit deal now says it’s intolerable and has to be changed,” said Alistair Carmichael for the Lib Dems.

Yup, agreed Labour’s Jenny Chapman, it was “the agreement he negotiated – and the prime minister signed – just two years ago.”

“The absolute state of David Frost trashing the deal he negotiated + hailed as a triumph,” Tweeted Gavin Barwell.

“It is a fact that Lord Frost negotiated the protocol, agreed to its terms and backed Boris Johnson’s campaign to sell it during the last general election,” said Matthew O’Toole for the SDLP, just in case we had missed the point.

OK, guys, we get it. But your argument is enormously telling in two ways.

First, it exposes a total lack of interest in addressing the problems. Even now, more than five years after the referendum, Eurocrats are chiefly interested in teaching us a lesson. They want there to be a visible price for Brexit, and if that price is an economic and political crisis in Northern Ireland, tant pis.

That much, perhaps, is not entirely surprising. There were always Euro-zealots for whom Brexit was an act of sacrilege that called for chastisement. What is surprising – or at least would have been five years ago – is that a section of the British commentariat was so unbalanced by the referendum result that it now automatically sides with the EU, however petulant, self-contradictory or unreasonable its position.

No one in Northern Ireland is pro-Protocol. My parliamentary select committee has been taking evidence for months. We have heard from Leavers and Remainers, Unionists and nationalists, Leftists and Rightists. Some oppose the Protocol on principle, some see it as the price of Brexit. But no one – no one – actively likes it.

Yet, while the British government is actively seeking to address local concerns in ways that will avoid a hard border and give the EU the guarantees it says it needs, its opponents are still playing games of the well-who’s-sorry-now kind.

That reaction is telling in another way. “You signed it” is a far weaker argument than its exponents seem to realise.

Most treaties are now defunct. Either they lapsed, or they were renounced by one party or the other, or they were overtaken by events. Where, now, is the Triple Alliance? Where is the 1914 Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, giving the United States first refusal on any canal built across Nicaragua? Where is the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, guaranteeing a British military presence at the Suez Canal? Where is the Warsaw Pact?

Imagine a list of every international accord, going back to the Peace of Callias between the Delian League and Achaemenid Persia in the fifth century BC. How many of them are still in force? One per cent? Less?

Consider an example that seems apt given its subject matter, and given the fact of this being its centenary year. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which recognised Irish independence, came with a number of conditions, including an oath of loyalty to the monarch, continuing British access to three ports and much else.

Once independence had been secured, successive Irish governments progressively dismantled those conditions, breaking their residual constitutional links with the UK, leaving the Commonwealth and declaring a republic.

Britain, for what it’s worth, reacted with equanimity. When the final rupture was made in 1949, George VI sent a warm message to the Irish President:

“I hold in most grateful memory the services and sacrifices of the men and women of your country who rendered gallant assistance to our cause in the recent war and who made a notable contribution to our victories. I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future.”

The EU is unlikely to be so affable. But the argument that Ireland used was a familiar one, namely that it had signed a treaty under duress, sought to make it work, found it intolerable, and so was abandoning it.

Obviously, Britain did not fight a war to get out of the EU. But there is no way that it would have agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol had not a majority of MPs been working with Brussels to sabotage Brexit. The Protocol was the product of the Benn Act. Indeed, it was only after Theresa May lost the 2017 election that the EU proposed the outrageous idea that the UK should surrender jurisdiction over part of its territory.

As Frostie put it in Lisbon, it was agreed during “a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied” – a point that no one has seriously disputed. Which makes it rather rich for those MPs who were doing the hand-tying in 2019 to complain now.

Could Britain simply annul parts of the Protocol, as Ireland did with the 1921 treaty? Yes – and it should. Triggering Article 16 is an inadequate solution, leaving many objectionable arrangements in place. It is a measure of the loopiness of Brussels negotiators and, even more, of their British cheerleaders, that making use of a treaty clause agreed to by the EU and intended for precisely such circumstances as now is howled down as a breach of faith.

If the EU is threatening retaliation over a measure foreseen in the Protocol – a measure invoked by the EU in February from no higher motive than pique at Britain’s vaccination programme – then we might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, abrogate the whole deal and replace it with something more workable.

Outright repudiation would allow us to put new arrangements in place, proving that there is no need for border infrastructure in Ireland and ensuring that future talks began from that fact. The sooner we act, the better.

Henry Hill: Unionists’ court defeat shows scale of the challenge Johnson faces as ‘Minister for the Union’

1 Jul

Last week, I looked at press reports that David Frost had secured what I called a “stay of execution” for east-west supply chains between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And indeed, this morning’s papers report that the UK and the EU have agreed a three-month extension to the ‘grace periods’ on foodstuffs being shipped from the mainland to the Province, as well as generally improved relations between the two sides in the negotiations.

So far, so good. However, a three-month extension is not a lasting solution, and there are still plenty of signs that the two sides are a long way from finding one.

EU sources, for example, have been briefing that London has accepted that this latest extension is indeed to allow Northern Irish businesses to establish new, south-facing supply chains, which if true would make the entire standoff pointless. Meanwhile the FT reports that the Prime Minister insists that it is for Brussels to move:

“Johnson said the EU needed to address its interpretation of the protocol and how it related to “the ban on chilled meats, the restriction on the circulation of cancer drugs, and the fact that 20 per cent of all the customs checks carried out in the whole of the EU are carried out in Northern Ireland”.”

Stephen Booth has outlined on this site today how the UK intends to push for a bespoke arrangement, just as several other countries have done.

Meanwhile Unionists will take even less comfort from Boris Johnson’s stern tone than even they might previously after yesterday’s defeat in a Belfast court of the legal challenge to the Protocol. Government lawyers successfully argued that the Withdrawal Act had impliedly repealed Article Six of the Act of Union, which provides for unhindered free trade within the United Kingdom, despite the Prime Minister insisting in the House of Commons that no such thing had taken place.

The result sheds a cold light on skewed legal playing field faced by those trying to defend Northern Ireland’s position in the Union. The judge conceded that the Act of Union is a ‘constitutional statute’, but denied it the immunity from implied repeal that is basically what defines a ‘constitutional statute’. He acknowledged that trade between the two parts of the country was on an unequal footing, but denied that Northern Ireland’s ‘constitutional status’ had changed in any manner relevant to the Belfast Agreement.

I have written before about the dangers of applying the Agreement in a one-sided fashion, and this is another example. Over the past few years, the narrow range of north-south issues protected under the Annex to Strand Two have somehow metastasized into an entitlement to an invisible economic and social border with the Republic of Ireland that is nowhere in the text of the treaty.

Meanwhile the courts are increasingly holding to the Irish nationalists’ line that Ulster’s connections to Great Britain have no such protection, and the Belfast Agreement’s protections for the Province’s status apply only to top-level British sovereignty.

This is not what unionists thought they were signing up to. We know because David Trimble is telling us, although it is no longer fashionable to pay much regard to the Nobel Prize-winning co-architect of the treaty everyone professes to be so concerned about. Given that the Belfast Agreement and the settlement that rests on it only works if it commands the respect of both communities, you’d think it was obvious that weaponising it against one of them is extremely short-sighted.

Instead we have Simon Hoare accusing unionists of trying to ‘shred’ the Agreement… by trying to assert the protections they thought they enjoyed under it.

This strikes a similar tone to that adopted by anonymous EU sources in the Irish press during the negotiations, when they said that Theresa May should “say to the DUP, listen you guys you’ve got nowhere else to go anyway, so this is what’s going to happen”. Basically, Northern Irish unionists should stop making things awkward for Brussels as it tackles the deadly peril to the Single Market posed by illegal British sausages.

Roderick Crawford: The Northern Ireland Protocol. The EC’s latest proposal is a trap – designed to tie the UK into its regulatory orbit.

16 Jun

Roderick Crawford edited Parliamentary Brief 1992-2012 and currently works in conflict resolution. He is director of If You Are Safe I Am Safe.

Though the UK agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol it did not design it. As the party responsible for its implementation — as well as the good governance of Northern Ireland — it has every right and obligation to use safeguards to make sure that the protocol achieves its stated aims, as set out in Article 1 and the extensive preamble of the protocol and to argue for the changes that will make it work.

The Government has been accused of breaking international law by not implementing the protocol in full whereas in fact it is implementing the protocol in line with the stated aims of the protocol and its own wider obligations, it is just that this requires — indeed triggers — the use of safeguards.

The EU, on the other hand, wants the protocol fully implemented first and then it will discuss any changes that are needed. However, full implementation would cause considerable disruption to the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland, and cause further social and political disruption that no responsible government can be expected to allow.

The UK has always been clear that it would prioritise the upholding of the Belfast Agreement above the protocol — an objective the protocol arguably supports. It does so at considerable cost diplomatically but with no selfish gain in mind. It is admirable and right to do so.

The EU — Commission and member states — see things differently. There may be a large element of the dialogue of the deaf about this, but there is more to it than that. Take the Commission’s proposal that the UK enter into a temporary Swiss-style SPS agreement with the EU, promoted by Maros Sefcovic. He argues this would deal with 80 per cent of the problems being faced on GB-NI trade and that this agreement could be suspended if the UK needed to do so in order, for instance, to conclude trade deals with others.

However, if such an SPS agreement made the protocol work effectively, how could we remove it? There could be no US-UK trade agreement built on this formula. It does not take much thought to realise that this approach would achieve EU aims of tying the UK to the EU’s regulatory orbit and hamper the future of an independent UK trade policy and thus much of the rationale for the type of Brexit that has been achieved. It is not a solution to the better working of the Northern Ireland protocol: it is a trap, and a rather obvious one at that.

Rather than look outside of the protocol we should look within it to see if we can re-engineer the text to better accomplish its aims. There is an article in the protocol that could provide a considerable contribution to a solution. It would contribute not only to an easing of the trading difficulties but also of the social and political ones. It could reset the mood in Northern Ireland. And because it is in the protocol, the re-engineering can be argued to be a technical fix, not a renegotiation.

The 900 words of Article 5 of the protocol makes up a considerable amount of the articles 5-10 that deal with trade related issues. This article provides for special treatment for goods not at risk of entering the single market; specifically, it states that customs duties will only apply if goods are deemed at risk of entering the single market.

Because the Trade and Co-operation Agreement has created customs free trade in goods between the UK and EU the easements that this article would have provided are redundant. The 35 words of Clause 4 of this article apply the regulations of the single market (as set out in annex 2) to all goods, regardless of whether those goods are at risk of entering the single market or not. Article 5 therefore plays no part in making the protocol work effectively and acceptably.

Given that the Commission accepts that there are goods not at risk of entering the single market — goods that the Joint Committee were obliged to identify by the end of December 2019 — why should such goods have to comply with EU regulations at all?

If clause 4 of article 5 was amended so that EU regulations were not applied for goods not at risk of entering the single market (or in the case of processing of goods, not applied at the discretion of the Joint Committee) then the protocol would have much of the flexibility it needs to work to the satisfaction of all parties — bar those elements playing silly games. This would, for instance, allow the retail sector to work without hindrance from the protocol — and after all, unlike manufacturing, the protocol offers it no upside).

We don’t need a new protocol — though we might want one; we need it re-engineered. The problem with describing the protocol as “international law” is that you are either obeying the law or breaking it. In reality the protocol is as much policy as law. It attempts to address a unique situation; it has never been done before; it was not road tested and those for whom it was applied were only partly and imperfectly consulted.

The UK wanted to await the results of the EU-UK future relationship before finalising the framework for Northern Ireland; had we waited it is hard to see how Article 5 would have been worded as it is in the current protocol. The idea that the protocol would or could work without re-engineering along the way was unrealistic in the extreme and surely arrogant too. We are living with the consequences.

The Commission has claimed that there is no alternative to the protocol, that it cannot be amended and that any failure to implement in full is a breach of the UK’s international obligations. None of this is the case. If we cannot sort out the design faults in the protocol then the UK will have to use Article 16 safeguards to ensure that Northern Ireland is protected from the serious economic and political consequences of the protocol’s failings; that is what they are there for.

This would not be ideal, but the UK government has to have the power as well as the responsibility to govern properly in Northern Ireland. The publication in this last week of Northern Ireland Life and Times annual survey, the most reliable survey of public opinion there, shows only 26 per cent supporting a united Ireland: 55 per cent supporting the continuance of the Union. This reaffirms the necessity of ensuring the long-term stability of a workable protocol and the moral and legal authority the UK brings to the table as it works with the EU to achieve this.

Northern Ireland’s place in the UK must be affirmed by deed, as well as by word

2 Jun

Over the past few years, one of the biggest complaints that Northern Irish unionists have had about the British Government is the sense that the Northern Ireland Office is not on their side. They contrast the NIO’s painstaking neutralism with Dublin’s energetic championing if the nationalist interest in the Province.

This has become an especially sore point in the aftermath of the EU referendum, as London ended up getting comprehensively outmanoeuvred over Ulster. Theresa May ended up accepting the need for a ‘backstop’ or Protocol after basically getting memed into an absurdly maximalist interpretation of “our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement”.

It ought to have been the NIO’s responsibility to have the UK Government’s own understanding of its commitments properly articulated and ready to go. They did not, and the result was an abject episode of British diplomacy, the dire consequences of which Lord Frost has been tasked with unpicking.

Fortunately, the Government seems to have realised that the problems created by the Protocol are not simply a matter for its trade negotiators. A border in the Irish Sea strikes directly at Northern Ireland’s position as an equal part of the United Kingdom. Reassurance needs to be offered on multiple fronts.

It is therefore very welcome that Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State, announced yesterday that the town of Hillsborough is going to become the first in the Province to be awarded ‘Royal status’, in light of its “close ties to the Royal Family”.

Obviously this is only a small thing in itself. But the fine details of life – see also inviting Rangers and Celtic to join the Premier League, or running Great British Railways in national livery – add up. If the Belfast Agreement is to endure as a settlement that respects (and is thus respected by) both communities – and that isn’t certain – the Government must be unafraid to reinforce Northern Ireland’s British status in deed, as well as in word.

There will be those who splutter about “more flags”, just as they did when ministers announced an expanded footprint for UK Government departments or Lewis confirmed they would fly the Union Jack. This is the same sort of thinking that saw litigants try to take Theresa May’s ministry to court over its confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, as if the very participation of Northern Irish MPs in a British Government breached an Agreement that explicitly affirms their Britishness.

For too long, the institutional attitude of the NIO seemed to reflect the mindset that has afflicted London’s approach to Ulster since the foundation of Stormont: that it is to be quietly sidelined from the UK’s national life until it inevitably joins the Republic. There has apparently been a belated but determined effort to shift this since the election, with one official allegedly complaining that the Department is now ‘too right-wing and too unionist’ – which is only fitting for a right-wing, unionist Government.

The question is whether this can be sustained. Changing deep-seated attitudes takes a long time, and mainland politicians thrust into Northern Irish posts seem especially prone to capture by groupthink. Even today, when food supplies to the Province have only been maintained by unilateral British action, Simon Hoare – the Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee – claims businesses in North Dorset would “bite your hand off” for Ulster’s semi-detached commercial status. It would be a crying shame if all this good would were squandered by a careless reshuffle.

Henry Hill: If Johnson wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must act to restore unionist confidence in it

8 Apr

Last month, I wrote about what the appointment of Lord Frost signalled with regards to the Government’s intentions over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This week’s loyalist violence shows the importance of Boris Johnson getting this policy right.

The division inside the Government is not between people who like or dislike the Protocol. Nobody likes it.

Rather the divide is between those such as Michael Gove, who believe that the Protocol can be made to work (and has striven to sand off its roughest edges), and the likes of Frost, who don’t. The latter camp maintain that because the Protocol is a ‘living document’ rooted in EU law, it is almost certainly going to metastasise rather than stabilise, and lay a heavier and heavier burden on Ulster’s connections with the mainland.

Of course there is no avoiding the fact that the Prime Minister signed up to it, but the defence offered for that is that after the passage of the Benn Act the Government didn’t have the leverage to get rid of it before leaving the EU. Nor was the mistake his alone.

For all that some commentators like to talk up Theresa May’s alternative approach, in truth the critical mistakes on Northern Ireland – especially allowing Britain’s rhetoric about no return to “the borders of the past” to mutate into a commitment to an invisible Irish border which is not in the Belfast Agreement – were made when she was in office. Ireland and the EU deliberately pushed a maximalist line on Ulster and credulous British ministers swallowed it whole.

The Protocol isn’t the only factor contributing to the violence. The visible refusal of the PSNI to act on blatant lawbreaking by senior Sinn Fein politicians is another. But they are part and parcel of the same trend of unionists and loyalists feeling that the structures and processes of the post-1998 settlement are being stacked against them.

There is no plausible reading of the Belfast Agreement that could offer the nationalist community a right to an invisible border with a neighbouring state but not protect unionists from a visible border inside their country. Yet that is how it has been defined, if not in court then by the political debate around the Protocol. The Agreement is supposed to guarantee Northern Ireland’s British status, yet the Government will not fly the flag there. Some people even thought the Democratic Unionists propping up the May Government – i.e. participating in their national government – a breach of the deal.

As a result, the loyalist paramilitary groups have already withdrawn their support for the deal and there is an increasingly real prospect of political unionism following suit. If the major parties get spooked into collapsing Stormont, it may not come back.

This is a test for both sides. The EU has been keen to talk up the importance of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement and ‘the peace’ when doing so meant maximally enforcing the EU’s interests. Will it continue to prioritise them if it means going against its perceived interests? It would be a surprise.

But it is even more a test for the Government, because Northern Ireland is British and thus ultimately our responsibility. That means that yes, Johnson needs to back Frost to the hilt if he has a long-term strategy for delivering fundamental changes to the Protocol. But he should not stop there.

As I wrote in the News Letter last week, he should overturn the decision to exclude the Province from the new policy of putting the Union Flag on UK Government buildings and authorise Brandon Lewis to undertake root-and-branch reform at the NIO to get rid of the entrenched neutralist attitudes that rule there. He should also task whoever is in charge of formulating constitutional policy to sit down and develop a proper British vision of the Belfast Agreement and its obligations, to help prevent future generations of lazy and/or uninterested ministers getting memed into terrible decisions by those selling the myths that seem to comprise the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

For too long, the Government has relied on the old trick of staging interminable rounds of talks and then basically bribing the local parties back into Stormont for a bit. If the Prime Minister wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must demonstrate to unionists that its guarantees of their British status – including the ability to participate fully in British political and economic life – are real.

Henry Hill: It is past time the Government worked out a British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement

17 Sep

Joe Biden’s latest intervention in the battle over the Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill is a useful reminder of a couple of truths which the Right in this country are prone to forgetting.

The first is that the ‘Special Relationship’, upon which the entire Atlanticist world-view rests, is a fiction. The US does have a unique bond with an island nation off the coast of Europe – but it isn’t this one.

Second, this crisis highlights once again how utterly woeful unionists on both sides of the water have been in developing a proper theory of the Belfast Agreement and selling it to journalists and policymakers either at home or overseas.

What does a ‘theory of the Belfast Agreement’ mean? It means an expansive understanding of what its provisions entail, and even more importantly, what they don’t entail, plus a narrative in which these interpretations make sense.

Over the past four years, both an uninterested UK Government and its unionist allies have been utterly routed when it comes to shaping popular understanding of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. As a result, even as sincere a unionist as Theresa May ended up accepting that Britain was under a treaty obligation to ensure that absolutely no border infrastructure was necessary between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This understandably outraged those who recognised how extraordinarily it would be to have an external party impose an internal tariff border on a sovereign nation, and proved the undoing of May’s deal. Boris Johnson then won the leadership with a vow that he would never accept such a thing. But he was no better equipped to challenge the line being peddled by Dublin and Brussels than his predecessor, so he folded. Now his belated efforts to (possibly) un-fold are causing the Government serious difficulty.

At every turn, the weight provided to the Agreement’s offers to each side are completely different. Quite limited references to cross-border cooperation are spun out into vast entitlements, whilst Unionists are fobbed off with the suggestion that having a broad swath of economic policy set from Dublin doesn’t technically change Ulster’s constitutional status. To imagine the Irish nationalist reaction to the same proposal in reverse – Irish policy set by London – is to see what a nonsense that defence is.

It’s not as if a unionist interpretation of the Agreement doesn’t exist – Lee Reynolds, the Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionists, set one out on this site in 2018. But there has been no concerted effort to sell it. The Government has a potential ally in David Trimble, who actually negotiated it, but has failed to give him any prominent role.

Would such a campaign have been a magic bullet? Of course not. The European Union would still have had every incentive to weaponise Northern Irish issues, and the sort of US politician who goes to bat for the IRA doesn’t really care one way or the other what the Agreement does or doesn’t say. But as with the Prime Minister’s attempt to refuse the Scottish Nationalists a second referendum, having a clear and defensible justification for what you’re doing can be the difference between being perceived as an honourable opponent or an untrustworthy chancer.

If the Government really wants to get ahead of the problem with regards to Northern Ireland, it should finally sit down and work out what the British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement is. Better decades late than never.