Henry Hill: Gove’s challenge – what if the Protocol ends up threatening the peace in Northern Ireland?

11 Feb

The Government’s war of words with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol shows no sign of abating. Indeed, if anything it looks set to get more serious.

According to the FT, the bloc has fired a ‘warning shot’ over ‘shortcomings’ in the UK’s enforcement of the new border regime. It has also apparently rejected demands for ‘flexibility’ in enforcing some of the provisions, which has seen diggers refused entry to the Province with British soil on their tracks.

As Michael Gove prepares to meet his Brussels counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, today to discuss the problem, the Guardian reports that the latter’s stance is that London must enforce the Protocol in full before any requests for leniency will be considered.

This comes as unionist and loyalist anger at the new arrangements continues to mount. Although checks at Ulster’s ports have resumed following threats of violence, political pressure on the major unionist parties continues to mount after a surge in support for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a hardline party led by Jim Allister, a former Democratic Unionist MLA.

Meanwhile a petition against the Protocol set up by the DUP has passed the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger consideration in Parliament, and the Orange Order has called for it to be scrapped.

But opposition isn’t confined to the traditional hardliners. David Trimble, the ex-Ulster Unionist leader and former First Minister who won the Nobel Prize as co-architect of the Belfast Agreement, has said that “the astonishing and disturbing fact is that the Withdrawal Agreement and, in particular, the Protocol clearly rips the Good Friday Agreement apart.” He fleshes out his case thus:

“Since, under the protocol, the laws governing 60 per cent of economic activity in Northern Ireland would no longer be made at Westminster or by the devolved Assembly, but by an outside law-making body, the EU, and those laws would be subject to interpretation by a non-UK court, clearly the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would be changed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland as required by the Good Friday Agreement.”

This touches on a concern that both Lee Reynolds and myself have previously raised on this site, namely the unequal treatment of unionist versus nationalist entitlements under the Agreement. The latter are interpreted very broadly as an entitlement to the pre-Brexit status quo, whilst the former’s safeguards on Ulster’s constitutional status are defined as tightly as possible around top-level sovereignty.

Perhaps the breadth of this criticism explains the increasing stridency of the DUP response. Have initially seemed prepared to try and make the Protocol work, the party is now coming under heavy fire for refusing to take part in a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, according to the News Letter.

Such a strategy of non-engagement could have serious consequences, as the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland require the active participation of both sides to function. That’s why Sinn Fein was able to collapse Stormont the last time – and there is nothing to bar the DUP from doing the same.

Predictably, anger is focused on the of the issues raised by Unionist MPs when they tried to quiz Michael Gove on the arrangements in Parliament. At the time, we highlighted his evasive answer to the question of whether or not the ‘grace period’ for food products was meant to buy time to negotiate a deal to protect mainland supply lines to Northern Irish businesses, or to give those businesses time to find new EU suppliers. It seems to have been the latter.

All this puts the Government in a difficult position. Unionist anger at the Protocol – both its outcomes and its underlying assumptions – is justified, and has been building for years. But ultimately Boris Johnson did sign up to it, shamelessly abandoning his promises to Ulster in the process. Despite its self-inflicted wound over Article 16 (which does make it easier for London to activate it, although Gove seems disinclined to do so), the EU gets what it wants by doing nothing and has little incentive to compromise.

But peace in Northern Ireland – which the bloc has always claimed was its top priority – is a dance with two partners. Not only are mainstream unionists incensed, but loyalist paramilitaries have just spent several years watching people pray in aid of the threat of republican violence to justify ruling out checks on the land border. It would be very bad if London and Brussels allowed the impression to form that the prizes will go to those who make life the most difficult – or dangerous.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.