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.