Henry Hill: Frost’s appointment shows the Government is not resigned to the Northern Ireland Protocol

4 Mar

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the European Union always insisted that its approach to Northern Ireland was governed by the pre-eminent importance it placed on the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement. Events may be about to test this thesis.

Today the Loyalist Communities Council, “an umbrella group that represents the views of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando” in the Guardian’s words, wrote to Boris Johnson to announce that the major paramilitary groups were withdrawing their support for the Agreement.

Whilst they insist for now that unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol remain ‘peaceful and democratic’, the move has been made against a background of mounting concern about a resurgence of loyalist violence, most likely targeting the infrastructure and personnel enforcing the new Irish Sea border between Ulster and the mainland.

All this is important context to the announcement that Lord Frost, the new Brexit Minister, is going to unilaterally extend the grace periods exempting supermarkets from checks on goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as well as a moratorium on customs declarations for parcels being sent to the Province. The move has sparked outrage from Brussels, which has accused the Government of engaging in a second UKIM-style breach of international law.

But according to sources familiar with the thinking behind the move, this is quite another sort of manoeuvre. The threat of “specific and limited” breaches to international law deployed during the debate on the UK Internal Market Bill were a short-term negotiating tactic – and one which worked, in as much as it helped Michael Gove to secure concessions from the EU on the Protocol.

However, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was at best negotiating with one hand tied behind his back. Whilst the Prime Minister and his team had apparently come to office fully aware of the danger posed by the Backstop – see this letter from Johnson to Tusk from August 2019 – the passage of the ‘Benn Act’ severely restricted their ability to push back against Brussels’ demands before the Withdrawal Agreement had to be concluded.

Thinking within government has since divided into two camps. The first, represented by Gove, is essentially facilitative. They don’t like the Protocol, but they recognise the extreme difficulty of resiling from it. This would certainly be in keeping with his more conciliatory approach to the parallel row over devolution.

Frost apparently takes a different view. His camp believes that with the best will in the world, the Protocol is simply not sustainable. Even if its first few weeks had not already witnessed several emergency summits, the triggering of Article 16, and the above loyalist declaration, there are deeper structural problems that mean it cannot be a stable foundation for a lasting settlement.  Specifically, the fact that the whole thing is rooted in EU law means that it is a ‘living document’, whose implications and scope will continually expand in line with EU regulation and rulings from the European Court of Justice. Its operation will therefore drag Northern Ireland farther and farther away from the economic orbit of Great Britain by default.

If you take this view, then it follows that the Protocol needs to be replaced, and sooner rather than later – just as the UKIM Act partially redressed Theresa May’s capitulation to the devocrats over post-Brexit powers. This is where Frost’s unilateral extension of the grace periods comes in.

Those privy to the thinking behind the move believe that it is much more defensible internationally than the UKIM gambit was. Especially in light of the dangerous situation with the loyalists and the role of empty shelves as a focus for unionist anger, the Government can defend a temporary measure intended to buy more time to find lasting solutions.

But as we saw when we looked at Gove’s negotiations, such solutions may not exist in the current framework. He notably refused to reassure Democratic Unionist MPs that the original grace periods were intended to buy time to make GB-NI supply lines work, rather than give Northern Irish businesses time to find new, EU suppliers. Which on the face of it makes another round of temporary fixes just another tactical get-out-of-jail (for now) card.

Unless, that is, the ambition is to have secured material changes to the Protocol by the time those extra six months are up.

This won’t be easy. Contra the somewhat complacent assumptions of some ERG members, it would be very difficult for the UK to simply resile from the Protocol. A short, sharp, UKIM-style threat is one thing. Standing indefinitely in the bad graces of the international law community quite another.

So there are two possible paths forwards. The first, assuming that Brussels absolutely refuses to play ball, is that Britain manages to argue that the EU is operating in bad faith and uses that to justify walking away from the agreement. The second is more attritional, and involves persuading the EU that reworking the Protocol is in the interests of both sides.

This might seem optimistic. But in the event of an actual return to violence, not to mention an endless succession of crisis talks, Brussels will be forced to choose between its hard-nosed defence of the Single Market and its homilies about the peace. British strategists apparently think that the EU places such a high value on its being seen as a moral (indeed, the most moral) actor that it is unlikely to stick to its current purist position in such conditions.

In the event of fresh negotiations, London would be aiming for a new arrangement which overturned two axions which May unwisely signed up to: that there be no change whatsoever to the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland (which is often dressed up as a Belfast Agreement obligation, but isn’t); and that the EU should not have to adapt its legislative arrangements. Greater cooperation in other areas – maybe defence? – could be offered in exchange.

This is a bold strategy. To have any chance of working it will take months of sustained diplomatic and governmental effort. If the Prime Minister really has elevated Frost with such a mandate, it is vital that he be left in post long enough and be sufficiently empowered to pursue it. To let one half of your Union strategy collapse into chaos might be regarded as carelessness; to let both looks like negligence.

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.

Henry Hill: Johnson suggests 40-year wait for the next Scottish independence vote

7 Jan

Johnson calls for decades-long wait for second independence vote

Last month, I wrote that there was unease in parts of the Government about an alleged “appease-the-SNP mentality” on the part of some of those charged with setting its strategy for combatting the Scottish National Party.

But the New Year has not seen any softening of Boris Johnson’s approach to the Scottish question. In fact, on Monday he went some way towards firming it up.

Comparing the Scottish referendum in 2014 to the EU plebiscite two years later, the Prime Minister suggested that there ought to be a 40-year gap between such votes on significant constitutional issues. This goes even further than I suggested when I wrote in 2017 about imposing a 20-year moratorium on the independence question.

Although the status of Johnson’s off-the-cuff remarks is never certain, this could be a welcome step towards fleshing out the case against granting a poll if the SNP win this year’s Holyrood elections. They will insist that his position isn’t sustainable, but it is. Whilst simply repeating the ‘once in a generation’ mantra probably won’t cut it, there are plenty of further arguments for such a refusal. But ministers will need to start deploying them sooner rather than later if they are to look as if they’re being made in good faith.

The real question is whether or not the Prime Minister has the wisdom and the inclination to use the time it’s so obviously his intention to buy himself to put in long-term work to shore up the Union.

Meanwhile Scotland’s opposition parties have demanded that Nicola Sturgeon pause campaigning on independence to focus on the pandemic, a Tory MSP has been accused of “insensitive and irresponsible” comments about Covid-19, Johnson claimed the UK has been central to the vaccine rollout in Scotland, and Ruth Davidson has urged politicians to ensure that the nation repays its debt to the young when the crisis has passed.

Civil servant at centre of Salmond inquiry in line for payout as MP demands sackings

The Daily Record reports that the senior civil servant who apologised for the unlawful Government probe into Alex Salmond “is in line for a £250,000 lump sum when she retires”, as well as an annual sum of £85,000.

Leslie Evans, who currently serves as the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary, has come under sustained criticism over its handling of the botched inquiry into allegations against Alex Salmond. The former First Minister had legal costs of over £500,000 paid by the Scottish taxpayer after a court ruled that the process had been, as the paper puts it, “unlawful and tainted by apparent bias”.

Although she apologised, Evans has subsequently been criticised by MSPs investigating the fiasco over the Scottish Government’s refusal to hand over key documents, as well as for having to ‘correct’ some of the evidence she gave personally.

Salmond has called on the Permanent Secretary to consider her position, and he isn’t the only one looking for scalps. This week Kenny MacAskill, a Nationalist MP, wrote in the Scotsman about the lack of consequences for those involved. And in another sign of the SNP’s fraying discipline, he didn’t confine his fire to the officials:

“After the debacle of the civil case, she could have resigned quietly and much would have been forgotten or not gone much further. Likewise the SNP CEO could have called it quits and allowed others to take over. But no, so now we face many more being drawn into the mire. Hell mend them I say.”

UDA issue threat against Foster

Arlene Foster has been warned by the police of a threat to her life by the Ulster Defence Association, one of the Province’s largest loyalist paramilitary groups, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

This is apparently not related to the Irish Sea border but stems from her support for the family of Glenn Quinn, a terminally-ill man who was murdered by men believed to be linked to the UDA in January last year.

Politicians from across the spectrum – including Sinn Fein, whose relationship to political violence is unavoidably ambiguous – have condemned the threat to the First Minister.

Bogdanor hits out at the folly of federalism

A potentially noteworthy development in the constitutional debate today as Professor Vernon Bogdanor, one of the UK’s highest-profile constitutional thinkers, comes out against both federalism and endlessly ceding more powers to the SNP.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, he argues that there is no precedent for a successful federation where one unit comprises 85 per cent of its population, as England would, and that there is no mandate for breaking England up into regions. And as for the usual call for ‘more powers’:

“Nor does it make sense to devolve more powers to Scotland. She already controls domestic policy – education, health etc – and effectively income tax also. The more powers devolved, the less leverage for Scottish MPs at Westminster, to the benefit of the separatists. Besides, the SNP does not effectively use the powers it already has… Perhaps the best argument for the Nationalists’ policy of “independence in Europe” is that Scotland could hardly be worse governed by Brussels than she is by the SNP.”

Obviously this won’t fix much on its own. The key problem with the current constitutional debate remains that Labour is hopelessly committed to trying to validate the mistakes it made in the 1990s. But following as it does Boris Johnson’s unguarded but accurate comments about devolution having been ‘a disaster’, and coming from a former advocate of reform, it’s the latest signal of a slow but significant shift in pro-UK thinking.

Happy centenary, Northern Ireland. Let’s plan for a second one.

6 Jan

This year marks the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland in 1921. It would probably come as something of a surprise to some of its architects, if they returned to Earth today, to learn that it lasted this long.

Ministers have reportedly set aside £3 million of public money to mark the occasion, although this probably feels like very small beer to Unionists staring down the barrel of the Northern Irish Protocol and the threat of economic partition from the mainland.

Of course, this danger might be overstated. In his summary of implications for Northern Ireland as part of our ‘The Deal in Detail’ series, Dr Graham Gudgin concluded that “the Union is safe enough”, and “nor are the costs of victory likely to be heavy, even if nationalists will of course strive to make them seem so”. He also believes that the impact of the Irish Sea border on day-to-day life will be light.

There are also grounds to be wary of a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose narrative peddled by some commentators in which a ‘united Ireland’ is brought closer by every option, be it a land border outraging nationalists or a sea one demoralising unionists.

However, it may be too early for so cheery an assessment. We are already seeing delivery services change their approach to Northern Ireland. Michael Gove wriggled away from pointed questions in Parliament about whether the ‘grace periods’ for things like foodstuffs are intended to buy time to negotiate arrangements which protect existing East-West links, or to give Ulster businesses time to set up new supply lines with the Republic.

Nor – as any Brexiteer should know – are the EU’s arrangements static. The Single Market regulations will be continually expanding, and as they do the areas of possible divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will likewise expand. As the Province is not represented in EU institutions, this risks expanding the prestige of Irish representatives who will try to take on that role – just as Dublin has already stepped up to fund both the European Health Insurance Card and places on the Erasmus scheme for Northern Irish residents.

In contrast with this assertiveness, historically Westminster has been extremely wary of doing much of anything which emphasises Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, even be it so innocuous as putting the Union Flag on its (British) driving licences. For their part, the non-integrationist majority of local Unionists have been reluctant to fully engage with mainland politics for the fear – far from ungrounded, as Boris Johnson’s u-turn on the Protocol illustrates – that they have few real allies there.

The upshot of this is the vicious cycle of devolutionary unionism at its most advanced, perhaps morbid stage, which amounts to substantial cash transfers between parts of the country with increasingly little institutional or social integration to justify it.

With Brexit now ‘done’, to a given value of done, it looks as if the Union is shaping up to be the central plot of Season 2 of the Johnson premiership. The main focus is inevitably on Scotland, and the looming showdown which beckons after they likely secure another separatist majority in the Scottish Parliament in May. But the Prime Minister has bridges to build (perhaps literally) with Northern Ireland too.

He should start by appointing a Northern Irish Secretary – probably from the Lords – with a deep pre-existing interest in the Province, and task them and their special advisers with finally articulating a proper case for the British Government as to what its obligations under the Belfast Agreement actually are. The past few years have been a painful exhibition of how Dublin has effectively memed their London counterparts into accepting an absurdly maximalist interpretation of those obligations by providing incurious politicians with easy homilies.

Beyond that, the Province needs to be included in the same mission the Government has set itself for Scotland: reviving Westminster as a positive and pro-active force in every part of the kingdom. If Dublin is sponsoring the Erasmus scheme, which as Tom McTague puts it “builds a sense of Europeanness”, Ministers should respond not just with the global-facing Turing initiative but the mooted Home Nations alternative to encourage cross-border mixing amongst the next generation. British investment in key infrastructure, be it the M4 Relief Road or a ‘floating tunnel’ to Northern Ireland, should also be seriously considered.

The Conservatives can’t save the Union on their own, and Labour’s refusal to let go of their idée fixe – endlessly passing power away from the centre in the hope that at some point the problem goes away – remains a pressing problem. But the best way to try to shake them out of this orthodoxy would be to demonstrate that the alternative can work.

If the Prime Minister wishes to keep Northern Ireland inside the UK, let alone perhaps see it one day exercise its democratic right to set the Protocol aside and reintegrate with Great Britain, he needs to make the Union a compelling proposition. If he truly sees himself as “the greatest unionist that has ever occupied Downing Street“, it’s time to prove it.

Gove’s bargain to break the deadlock on trade with Ulster leaves big questions unanswered

9 Dec

The most important thing to remember, as Michael Gove prepares to give us the details of the deal he has struck to protect trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain after Brexit, is that regardless of those details the whole thing is a unionist defeat.

In fairness, so too was Theresa May’s deal. The defeat lies not in the specifics but in the very principle, wrongly conceded by British politicians who have never thought about Ulster enough, that we were somehow committed to privileging the Province’s trading relationship with the EU over its one with the mainland.

The Belfast Agreement does not say this. But Dublin and Brussels were not shy about praying in aid of it to justify their maximalist interpretation of British obligations and London, lacking its own coherent understanding and interpretation of the treaty, was swiftly enspelled by the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ meme.

So the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was only ever trying to make the best of a bad job. Did he succeed?

In his statement today, Gove set out the yardsticks by which he hopes to be measured:

We had to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses retained unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory had to be protected – and that meant that goods that stayed in the UK were not subject to tariffs. And we had to ensure that the important GB-NI trade flows, on which lives and livelihoods depend, were not disrupted; and we need to ensure a smooth flow of trade, with no need for new physical customs infrastructure.”

All worthy objectives, although it’s worth noting that the first has nothing to do with the EU – allowing unilateral trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was always in London’s gift – and that it was never likely that there would be tariffs on internal British trade.

Nonetheless, today’s announcement does suggest that real progress has been made on the third point. The two sides have apparently agreed a ‘trusted trader scheme’ which will see tariff exemptions for 98 per cent of goods moving from the mainland to Ulster. The level of checks is apparently “broadly positive“. Where agreement has not yet been reached, for example on meat products, grace periods have been secured for further negotiations.

It also allows the Government to signal to the US and others that it “takes account of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all of its dimensions”, and to withdraw the controversial ‘international law-breaking’ clauses of the UK Internal Market Bill (which some Government sources suggest helped unlock this breakthrough). This may help get the rest of the UKIM Bill, with its controversial but important provisions regarding mutual recognition and regional spending, through the Lords (although there are reports that Gove plans to abandon these too).

He can also take some satisfaction in having apparently overcome the EU’s insistence that there would be no ‘mini deals’ to ameliorate the impact of a No Deal exit. As this agreement applies “whether we have a Free Trade Agreement with the EU or not”, it would appear to be just such a thing.

On the other hand, gone is the slender hope held out by May’s proposals that ‘alternative arrangements’ might be found in the future to lift the Irish Sea border altogether.

The DUP have also pointed out Irish claims that the ‘grace periods’ are intended only to allow Ulster supermarkets to source products from the Republic, and it is worrying that in response to this Gove offered only a bromide about Northern Irish goods and offered no concrete assurances about mainland ones.

There is also as yet too much uncertainty about the practical operation of this deal. In his statement, Gove said: “We know that we now need to get on and give further clarity to business as to the specifics of what this deal means for them, and how it will all work in detail in practice. And we will do this through the publication of further guidance.” Questions are already being raised about the extent to which his understandable focus on the high-profile problem of supermarket supply chains belies ongoing problems for other businesses.

Urgent clarification is also needed on the state aid compromise. The Government has sought to prevent the situation wherein “a company in Great Britain, with only a peripheral link to commercial operations in Northern Ireland, could be caught inadvertently by the tests within the Protocol’s text”. In his statement, Gove says of his deal:

“It means firms in GB stay outside state aid rules where there is no ‘genuine and direct’ link to Northern Ireland, and no ‘real foreseeable’ impact on NI-EU trade.”

‘Genuine and direct’ and ‘real foreseeable’ are phrases which will end up in front of a court. Which one? If it is the European courts, one doesn’t need to be a European Research Group hardliner to imagine how that’s going to play out over the next ten or twenty years. And in that vein, this seems to do nothing about the fact that Northern Ireland will henceforth be subject to rules and regulations set by institutions in which it is unrepresented.

All in all, then, there are still plenty of grounds for unionist unease. Gove claims to have ameliorated the vast majority of the practical difficulties raised by the Prime Minister’s u-turn on an Irish Sea border, and he may yet prove to have done so. But given the Government’s previous form on Northern Ireland, and his evasiveness today, they have not earned the benefit of the doubt.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon’s timeline on Salmond scandal called into question as MSPs demand evidence

12 Nov

SNP timeline on Salmond grows ‘murkier’ as MSPs demand legal advice

Two weeks ago, this column had a section entitled “SNP woes deepen again”, the latest in what is becoming a regular feature on the growing laundry list of problems besetting the Scottish Government (not that you’d know it from the polls).

At the top of quite a long list of new challenges was a call by Alex Salmond for the ongoing inquiry into the handling of allegations against him by the SNP administration should be ‘broadened’ to look at “whether the First Minister would be investigated for potentially misleading parliament and failing to act on legal advice”.

It’s been a little while since we last had a proper look at how this row is developing, but this week saw a couple of important developments as the former First Minister, and opposition MSPs, continue to pick through the Nationalists’ story.

The first, reported here in the Courier, is that Nicola Sturgeon appeared to write to her most senior civil servant to confirm that the Scottish Government’s new harassment policy would apply to former ministers only two days after a meeting between her principal private secretary and one of the women who made allegations against Salmond.

As the paper notes, the timing of these events will only encourage those who accuse Sturgeon of being out to get her predecessors. This group certainly includes the man himself and his supporters, but opposition MSPs have also suggested that the two events “appeared to have been co-ordinated”.

Meanwhile Sturgeon has also been trying to claim that she has forgotten the details of a ‘bombshell’ meeting at which she first learned of the allegations against her predecessor. Jackie Baillie, a Labour MSP, attacked her administration’s “pervasive culture of secrecy” after it provided the same “no information” answer to five separate questions about the incident.

The SNP suffered another setback when they were ordered by the Scottish Parliament to hand over the legal advice it received during its ‘doomed’ legal battle with Salmond, according to the Herald. The defeat led to the current Holyrood inquiry after the former First Minister mounted a successful legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him, accusing it of bias. His victory cost the taxpayer over £500,000.

Now MSPs have apparently given ministers a Friday deadline to hand over the documents. Writing in the Scotsman, Murdo Fraser suggests that the “only reason for the Scottish Government not to publish legal advice is if they have something to hide”.

Yet typically, the SNP’s woes were not confined to this single front. It is reportedly refusing to reveal the final destination of cash the party raised through an ill-judged sale of branded anti-Covid masks, which was promised to charity.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Sun reports that the Scottish Government’s test-and-trace system “is performing up to five times worse than previously claimed”. According to a ‘bombshell report’: “Staff at the virus defence scheme failed to contact around half of recent positive cases within 24 hours of being told of their swab results, revised official stats reveal.”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has attacked the SNP for “peddling wildly inaccurate data”. This is a key issue for the Tories because the Nationalists’ perceived competence in handling the Covid-19 crisis is one of the big drivers fuelling support for separation in the polls.

Elsewhere on that front, Alister Jack appears to have hardened the Government’s opposition to a second independence referendum by reiterating once again its “once in a generation” argument (more robust arguments are available) whilst Sir John Major suggested offering the SNP a two-vote plebiscite instead.

Loyalist protests anticipated against backdrop of Stormont’s ‘rank incompetence’

The police are reportedly ‘actively’ monitoring loyalist groups in the expectation of organised protests against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Activists may ‘descend’ on ports to oppose the new Irish Sea border the Prime Minister signed up to when he capitulated on the Irish Protocol.

Unionist opinion is rapidly hardening against the deal, which sees sweeping new checks imposed on commerce between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, as the scale of the impact becomes clear. Owen Polley provides an overview at CapX, but the most visible symbol of unease is the joint letter from Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and Michelle O’Neill to the European Union urging it not to impose checks which risk severely restricting Ulster’s food supplies.

Advocates of the Irish Protocol insisted on a sea border over a land border because the latter was easier to police. But this failed to factor in that the volume of trade between the Province and the mainland vastly exceeds that with either the Republic or the rest of the European Union, so any checks there would affect a much greater slice of Northern Irish economic life.

It is also notable that nobody is suggesting that loyalist protests against a sea border render it a breach of the Belfast Agreement, despite the prospect of republican anger at landward checks being taken as evidence of such – another sign of the Government’s hapless failure to develop its own interpretation of the treaty.

One concession ministers did secure was the right of Stormont to set aside the Protocol. Obviously neither Brussels nor Dublin expected it to do so, now that unionists have lost their majority – but a unionism with fight left in it would recognise that protecting east-west commerce could be grounds on which such a campaign could be won.

Yet such a campaign seems a long way off with the DUP, unionism’s pre-eminent party, deeply embroiled in an entirely dysfunctional Stormont system. This week the News Letter has run some truly excoriating reporting on the “rank incompetence” of the Executive, a DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly.

Over the years since this column started, we have covered several attempts to establish new forces in Northern Irish unionism, focused less on little-Ulster rent seeking. In these stories one can see the space where such a party, running against the Protocol and the Stormont system, could make headway. But it remains nowhere to be seen.

The 56 Conservative MPs backing Brady’s amendment on coronavirus regulations

25 Sep

Updated September 29

Amendment: Prior parliamentary scrutiny of major national coronavirus regulations

“Line [1], leave out from “expire” to end and add “provided Ministers ensure as far as is reasonably practicable that in the exercise of their powers to tackle the pandemic under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and other primary legislation, including for example part 2A of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, Parliament has an opportunity to debate and vote upon any secondary legislation with effect in the whole of England or the whole United Kingdom before it comes into effect.”

  • Sir Graham Brady
  • John Cryer
  • David Davis
  • Harriet Harman
  • Sir Iain Duncan Smith
  • John Spellar

Other signatories:

Conservatives:

  • Steve Baker
  • Harriet Baldwin
  • Bob Blackman
  • Peter Bone
  • Andrew Bridgen

 

  • Paul Bristow
  • Christopher Chope
  • Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
  • James Daly
  • Philip Davies

 

  • Dehenna Davison
  • Jonathan Djanogly
  • Jackie Doyle-Price
  • Richard Drax
  • George Freeman

 

  • Richard Fuller
  • Sir Roger Gale
  • Nus Ghani
  • Cheryl Gillan
  • James Gray

 

  • Damian Green
  • Sally-Ann Hart
  • John Hayes
  • Philip Hollobone
  • Tom Hunt

 

  • Bernard Jenkin
  • David Jones
  • Daniel Kawczynski
  • Pauline Latham
  • Edward Leigh

 

  • Chris Loder
  • Tim Loughton
  • Craig Mackinlay
  • Karl McCartney
  • Stephen McPartland

 

  • Esther McVey
  • Stephen Metcalfe new
  • Huw Merriman
  • Bob Neil
  • John Redwood

 

  • Laurence Robertson
  • Bob Seely
  • Henry Smith
  • David Simmonds
  • Greg Smith

 

  • Sir Robert Syms
  • Julian Sturdy
  • Craig Tracey
  • Tom Tugendhat
  • Charles Walker

 

  • Christian Wakeford
  • Giles Watling
  • William Wragg. (55)

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.

Stephen Booth: Why the row about the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the EU’s position isn’t quite as strong as it likes to think

17 Sep

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

It is often said that Brexit is low on the list of the EU’s priorities. That national capitals have not been fully engaged in a process which they have delegated to Michel Barnier and the European Commission. The introduction of the Government’s Internal Market Bill has certainly got the EU’s attention.

The events of the last two weeks have upped the ante, but the two sides continue to talk and a deal between the UK and the EU is still possible, if the political appetite is there.

As I noted in my previous column, the negotiations over a new UK-EU free trade agreement have been locked in a stalemate over fishing and state aid for weeks, and a compromise can only be unlocked by high-level political intervention.

At the same time, a parallel, and up to now seemingly boring, process has been underway to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It has long been clear that the UK and the EU have significant disagreements to resolve in the Joint Committee, the forum established under the Withdrawal Agreement empowered to iron out the practical details of the Protocol’s implementation.

In its May 2020 Command Paper on the subject, the UK identified its practical concerns. For example, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland is subject to the Union’s Customs Code, which requires exit summary declarations for goods leaving the area to which the rules apply.

However, the UK’s view is that export or exit summary declarations should not be required for NI to GB trade (since Article 6 of the Protocol states that nothing in the Protocol should prevent NI businesses from having “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK).

Removing this requirement should not be particularly controversial, since Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory (as stipulated in Article 4 of the Protocol) and therefore any risk of complaints about the arrangements in terms of international obligations should rest with the UK, rather than the EU.

Another, more significant issue is the status of goods travelling from GB to NI deemed to be “at risk” of entering the EU (and therefore subject to EU tariffs). The Joint Committee is tasked with defining which goods are “at risk” and therefore broadening the scope of goods that would not be subject to tariffs. However, the default is that goods are “at risk”, unless the Joint Committee agrees otherwise.

The powers taken in the Internal Market Bill are advertised as an “insurance policy” to be used in the event of failure to address the UK’s concerns about the Protocol (which include the state aid provisions as well as exit summary declarations) via agreement within the Joint Committee and/or via a free trade agreement. There are reports that the Government plans to use the forthcoming Finance Bill to give itself similar powers with regard to tariffs.

Leaving aside the legalities and the domestic politics for a moment, why might the UK have decided to initiate a row with Brussels now and pre-empt the Joint Committee process? Of course, we cannot divine the precise motivation. Perhaps no deal is now seen as an inevitable, or at least probable, outcome by some in Government? But the logic of the negotiations offers another plausible rationale.

Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the wider free trade negotiations are theoretically on distinct tracks. While the Withdrawal Agreement committed both parties to seek to negotiate a free trade agreement in good faith, the Protocol comes into effect at the end of the transition period irrespective of any UK-EU trade agreement.

However, it is clear from the way the negotiations have been structured (at the strong insistence of Brussels) that the trade negotiation and the practical functioning of the Protocol are linked, and this gives the EU leverage over the trade negotiations. Since EU negotiators are not obliged to reach compromises in the Joint Committee on the issues causing the UK concern, they are able to hold the process up in order to apply pressure to the UK in the wider trade negotiation. Just because the EU is within its rights to do so, does not mean it should.

What the Government is doing, for better or worse, is to suggest to the EU that its leverage is not quite as strong as it would like to think. Ultimately, under the Protocol it is UK officials and agencies who will be tasked with enforcing EU rules. Realistically speaking, how plausible is it that the UK would do so zealously in a scenario where not only have the UK and the EU failed to reach a trade agreement, but the EU is also insisting on its maximalist interpretation of the Protocol?

The UK might have made this point more subtly if it had made clear that any measures it takes in the future would be strictly consistent with Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows either party to take unilaterally “appropriate safeguards” if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, and its pre-existing commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.

Equally, it should also be noted that the UK is not declining to implement other important aspects of the Protocol. Indeed, as Michael Gove noted in closing Monday’s debate and Brandon Lewis repeated in committee evidence yesterday morning, the UK is erecting border-inspection posts for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, which in an ideal world it would not have to and despite the opposition of the DUP.

Ultimately, what this row demonstrates is that a negotiated settlement on the Protocol and the wider trade issues should be preferable for both sides compared to an acrimonious breakdown in the UK-EU relationship. Indeed, the UK legislation introduced this week would be redundant if compromises can be reached.

A Protocol that is politically sustainable is in the EU’s interests. Equally, a UK-EU trade agreement would not remove all of the irritations thrown up by the Protocol but it could certainly help to smooth over some of the important issues. If there are no tariffs between the UK and the EU, there is less risk to the EU of goods entering the Single Market at a lower tariff. If the EU and UK reach agreements on SPS, like the EU has with New Zealand, then paperwork could be simplified. Equally, establishing a UK domestic subsidy regime, recognised by the EU in a free trade agreement, would help prevent the “reach back” of the state aid provisions in the Protocol that are also of concern to the UK.

Only time will tell if this episode is the beginning of the path to a deal or the point when things turned sour.