Henry Hill: Truss may struggle to persuade Brussels that the threat of action on the Protocol is real this time

12 May

Anyone who has followed the row over the Northern Irish Protocol for the past several years surely cannot help but be deeply wary of any suggestion that the Government might be actually about to do something about it.

For than once, Whitehall sources have strongly suggested that if talks hadn’t progressed by this or that date, ministers would have no choice but to trigger Article 16, only for the deadlines to come and go with no change.

A week ago, it looked as if this latest round of sabre-rustling was following a similar course.

Following an (almost-certainly hostile) leak of Liz Truss’s plans for special legislation to override the Protocol, Brandon Lewis seemed to pour cold water on the idea when he ruled it out of the Queen’s Speech. And indeed, no such Bill appeared therein.

But days afterwards, the Government has marched itself much further up the hill than ever before. The Daily Telegraph reports that Truss has set a deadline not weeks or months away, but of just 72 hours.

And today Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, has apparently received legal advice to the effect that it would be legal for the Government to overrule parts of the Protocol.

This is probably less seismic than it might sound, not least because, in the British system, Parliament can already legislate to whatever effect it pleases, so long as the Bill is properly drafted. Although this can be more or less in line with our international commitments, those do not trump its sovereign law-making power.

But more seriously because the main barriers to this course of action aren’t legal, but practical and diplomatic. A Bill of the sort apparently being drawn up by the Foreign Office would provide a locus for opposition in the House of Commons and likely provoke retaliation from Brussels. And a trade war would do nothing to ease the cost-of-living crisis.

This is the case even if, as has been suggested to me, the form of the legislation would not be to directly set aside aspects of the Protocol but to empower the Secretary of State to do so, basically creating a sounder legal footing for future carefully-targeted interventions such as the Government’s unilateral extension of grace periods.

(It is worth remembering that all the current problems with the Protocol are those arising whilst the United Kingdom is quietly refusing to implement significant parts of it. It would otherwise be even worse.)

Does the Government have sufficient will for this fight? It certainly seems to have got its allies in the press on board: “let’s destroy the myth that the EU’s priority in Northern Ireland is peace”, says this morning’s Sun.

But it is still far from clear that sufficient preparatory work has been done, either to ready the economy for the impact of a ‘trade war’ with the EU.

Nor to make the case for London’s (legitimate) interpretation of the Belfast Agreement, which does not mandate an invisible border on the island of Ireland but does guarantee Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, which certainly changed when key provisions of the Act of Union guaranteeing unfettered commerce were overridden by the legislation enacting the Protocol.

Still, there are reasons why the Government might think this strategy might work. The EU has not proven entirely unwilling to alter its rules in relation to the Protocol, and did so to resolve the row over medicines.

And having operated the grace periods for so long, London can reasonably ask Brussels where the evidence is for the dangerous distortions of the Single Market which allegedly loomed if British sausages were allowed to flow freely into Northern Ireland. They have been so flowing for two years. Where is the damage?

It is telling that in all the acres of coverage about the consequences of Truss’s plan, nobody seems to be suggesting that Ireland would be forced out of the Single Market. Yet if the EU truly believed the Protocol was necessary to safeguard its economy, and that London was prepared to tear it up, that would surely be on the cards.

Regardless, we will apparently know in less than a week whether or not the Government is serious this time. A 72-hour deadline doesn’t leave you with many places to hide.

Daniel Hannan: How Sinn Féin’s electoral success makes a United Ireland harder to achieve

11 May

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.

The shocking thing is that no one was shocked. Sinn Fein, a movement linked to armed gangsters, has now won (at least in the sense of getting more votes than anyone else) on both sides of the Irish border.

The fact that its victory was predicted does not make it any the less disturbing – quite the reverse, if you think about it. Yet there is no international condemnation.

It’s curious. Victories by, say, Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán drive commentators into finger-wagging rages. When Hamas won the Palestinian election, the US cut off its money. The EU is fining Poland a million euros a day because it dislikes the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Yet the idea of a party with a private army winning office is seen, not least in Brussels, a sign of progress.

It won’t quite do to say that the violence is all in the past. The leaders of the two traditional Dublin parties understand well enough what they are dealing with, which is why they buried a century of differences with one another to keep Sinn Féin out of office when it topped the poll in 2020.

“Sinn Féin is not a normal party”, explained Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, pointing to its links with the IRA’s Army Council. Micheál Martin, his Fianna Fáil counterpart, agreed, refusing to treat with SF on grounds that “shadowy figures dictate what happens.”

Mention any of this and you get a revealing reaction from online Shinners. A few rage at the suggestion that theirs is anything other than a fully democratic party. But most undermine their comrades’ indignation by wishing that Margaret Thatcher had been blown up and posting images of IRA gunmen.

Occasionally, the prejudices that are meant to be confined to social media burst out, as when SF canvassers toured County Cavan at the last Irish election blasting “Ooh, ah, up the ’RA!” from their van.

True, the overall election result was not as dramatic as the headlines suggested. Sinn Féin ended up with 27 Assembly seats, the same as it went in with.

What we saw was not a Republican surge but a Unionist fragmentation. The overall Orange/Green balance barely budged. Parties that want to stay in the UK have 37 seats (down three); parties that favour integration with the Irish Republic have 35 (down four).

It is not even the first time that an anti-Union party has won. In 2010, SF attracted fractionally more votes than the DUP, though a quirk of the system gave it fewer seats. Indeed, at the first ever Stormont elections in 1998, the SDLP got more votes than the UUP – though, again, fewer MLAs.

Does SF’s victory bring forward the prospect of the 32-county socialist republic which that party favours? In the short term, at least, it will almost certainly have the opposite effect.

You might think it paradoxical that a win for the Shinners, whose whole shtick is Irish unity, might retard that cause.

But plenty of people in both traditions have qualms about being absorbed into a state run by a party with links to organised crime, a party that can’t quite overcome its dislike of the police, a party with Corbynite economic policies, a party that won’t apologise for murders committed by its supporters (including of Irish Catholic civilians), and a party that still struggles to accept the legitimacy of state institutions in either jurisdiction.

Michelle O’Neill, the SF leader at Stormont, can’t even bring herself to name the territory of which she aspires to be first minister. Nomenclature is sensitive in Northern Ireland. Nationalists don’t like to hear the place described as ‘Ulster’ or ‘the Province’, while Unionists bridle at ‘the north of Ireland’ and ‘the six counties’.’

‘Northern Ireland’, the official name, is broadly seen as neutral. But SF regards even the acknowledgment of legal reality as unacceptable.

Perhaps the party’s biggest problem, though, is its unwillingness to come to terms with the presence of a million Brits in Northern Ireland. Although some of its politicians now refer to “our Unionist brothers and sisters”, they still see them, fundamentally, as misguided Irish Protestants, and won’t countenance the idea of accommodating their Britishness.

This is nothing new. Listen to how Éamon de Valera described his vision of unification as late as 1962:

“If in the north there are people who spiritually want to be English rather than Irish, they can go, and we will see that they get the adequate compensation for their property”.

Republicanism of the SF variety (or the Dev variety) defines unionism as a kind of false consciousness, a bogus identity created in and manipulated from London.

The fact that successive British governments kept trying to push Ulstermen into an accommodation with Dublin – perhaps in the hope that they would serve as a ballast, keeping Ireland within Britain’s orbit, but in an all-Ireland polity none the less – did nothing to shake this belief.

Every time Irish Republicans had to choose between attracting Unionists and emphasising their distance from Britain, they opted for the latter: removing Ireland’s remaining symbolic links with the UK, declaring a republic, leaving the Commonwealth, staying neutral in the war against Hitler, rejecting the Atlantic alliance, and making the Irish language compulsory for certain state functions.

These were legitimate choices for an independent country. But they were hardly likely to appeal to the large minority on the island who saw – and see – themselves as British subjects. Whenever Republicans demanded “Brits out of Ireland”, Unionists felt they were being asked to leave.

Constitutional nationalism by and large accepts that, in a place where there is always going to be a large minority, there must be compromises.

Constitutional unionism recognises the same. Its leaders understand that the Union must rest on the consent of both communities, and that such consent requires a willingness to recognise Irish identity in practical ways, such as offering people Irish citizenship and passports.

But SF does not do compromise. Whereas Unionism recognises that you can be both British and Irish – indeed, unionism might be said to have originated as the idea that to be Irish was also to be British – there is no version of republicanism that is not based, at least on some level, on a rejection of Britishness.

Awareness of this asymmetry makes the idea of an annexation following a vote of 50 per cent plus one disquieting to people in both traditions. It may partly explain why overall support for the Union has remained buoyant despite the shift from a two-to-one ratio of Protestants to Catholics a century ago to roughly even numbers today.

Put bluntly, people who are culturally Irish might back the Union for all sorts of practical reasons – concerns about pension rights, say – but only for as long as they feel their identity is respected.

Now try to imagine a united Ireland that genuinely respected British identity. What might it look like? Perhaps a bit like the Ireland that Parnell and Redmond campaigned for – a self-governing island under the Crown, with close institutional links to Great Britain.

Had the Home Rulers got their way – had any of Gladstone or Asquith’s devolution schemes come to fruition – we might have been spared three monstrous wars: the war of independence, the Irish civil war, and the Troubles.

A united Ireland might have evolved peacefully towards greater sovereignty in the way that, say New Zealand did – albeit probably keeping closer links to Britain in economic and foreign affairs, reflecting its geography.

Now ask yourself this. Do you see any likelihood of Ireland moving in that direction? Can you imagine Sinn Fein taking such a road? That, in a nutshell, is why Northern Ireland isn’t going anywhere in a hurry

John Redwood: My critique of the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture, and what the Government should do next

7 Mar

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Amidst all the harrowing reports from Ukraine and the deaths and destruction wrought there by Russia, the Chancellor has sought to chart a course for the economy for the next couple of years.

In his Mais lecture he echoed his predecessor, Philip Hammond, in seeking a productivity breakthrough. He also reaffirmed the Maastricht rules approach to economic management, wanting tax rises to get the deficit down first. The Treasury should note that its role model the EU has abandoned these rules for the time being, and is pursuing monetary and fiscal expansion.

The lecture was wrong to deny that lower tax rates can bring in more revenues. The Republic of Ireland has been a shining example of this, boosting its per capita GDP far higher than ours or the lower level of the  EU by attracting huge investments through a 12.5 per cent Corporation Tax rate.

Their business taxes offer a higher percentage of total tax take than our higher rates. The Chancellor ignores the findings of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson who he praises. They produced a surge in revenues from higher paid people by major cuts in income tax rates.

The Government should take the cost of living crisis more seriously. In accordance with the Mais lecture, it needs to create the conditions for private sector investment in creating more better-paid jobs and in producing more of the goods and services we need at home.

Levelling up needs to be private sector led, and offer people the chance to set up and run their own businesses, be trained for better paid employment, and find ladders of opportunity in the areas attracting the projects and businesses.

The Government should not take the fast growth rate of 2021 for granted. It was a one-off based on removing Covid restrictions and on an unprecedented injection of money by the Treasury and the Bank of England. In the end, they overdid it in scale and duration, triggering a nasty inflation. The new investment has to take place against a less supportive public sector background.

The rise of prices well above wages will cut growth, as people spend more of their money on such basics as food and energy. That will leave them with less to spend on leisure and pleasure – on items that are nice to have. The huge rise in energy bills alongside tax rises including National Insurance will sap spending power further. The economy will slow. The lecture did not tell us how the extra private sector investment will be attracted in these conditions, particularly with the planned rises in Corporation Tax to come.

These troubles will be compounded by the Government’s import promotion policies, which are most pronounced in the Business and Agriculture departments. Business is busy allowing the rundown of big energy using manufacture like steel, ceramics, aluminium, and glass in the name of Net Zero.

The trouble is that we then import the products from abroad, meaning that more C02 is created in their production and transport to us. The Business Department is busy reducing our oil and gas output so that we need to import more energy. Again, this adds to our CO2 production worldwide.The Environment Department is developing big subsidy incentives to remove land from food production and to encourage older farmers to give up. That will make us more dependent on imported food.

So why does the Government not like products made or grown at home? Why doesn’t it want more home output to boost jobs, incomes and lifestyles? Any sensible programme of levelling up should be cutting taxes and making it easier for local businesses and farms to set up and grow.

This year, revenues have come in much higher than the Budget forecast, thanks to higher growth – and way higher than the £12 billion that the Government says it needs for a tax rise. The Treasury did not put up rates of tax, so revenue grew. During the next financial year, higher tax rates and frozen starting levels will hit taxpayers hard. Revenue is likely to underperform as growth stutters.

An energy shortage is a big part of the problem. The government should ease the shortages of gas, oil and electricity. They should invite in the oil and gas producers in the U.K. and help them increase production straight away from current fields. They should offer licences for new production from all those new and extended fields that have already been discovered. That’s more jobs, better paid jobs, and plenty of extra tax revenue. It is also less CO2 generated globally, as our own gas produces under half the CO2 of imported LNG gas. We will have much more productive industry if we have cheap or competitive energy.

The Government should work with the electricity industry to keep the lights on. We  will need more capacity than is planned to cover the electric revolution. We need more power for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. We should abandon the current policy of putting in more and more interconnectors to allow us to import more from an energy short continent.  They should produce schemes to promote more home-grown food.

Henry Hill: Frost urges ‘calm’ as EU talks up tough response to triggering Article 16

11 Nov

Frost urges ‘calm’ over the Protocol

David Frost has warned that triggering Article 16 will be the UK’s ‘only option’ if talks this week fail to unlock the impasse between London and Brussels, according to the FT.

As this column reported last week, there is a growing feeling in Whitehall that the Government will have to take decisive action within the month if it is to maintain credibility with Unionists and avoid constitutional politicians in Northern Ireland getting potentially outflanked by radical loyalists.

Ministers are apparently already drafting secondary legislation to ‘slash customs checks’ in the event that Article 16 is triggered.

Interestingly, we seem to hear less from the “but you signed it” brigade these days. Perhaps that’s because the UK is in fact only availing itself of a mechanism explicitly negotiated into the deal it signed up to, whilst the EU is having to look beyond the agreement to try and find ways to force Britain to back down.

And the Times reports that there are going to be – wait for it – border checks on solid fuel (which counts as ‘goods’) in order to enforce the Republic’s new anti-pollution measures. Guess it isn’t a threat to the Belfast Agreement when Dublin does it?

Meanwhile Brandon Lewis has welcomed the announcement of £12 million in central government funding for 30 projects across the Province.

Gove accused of ‘moving referendum goal posts’

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up has been accused by Scottish separatists of moving the goalposts on a referendum, the Times reports, after he suggested that there shouldn’t be a re-run of the 2014 independence vote unless every party in Holyrood backed it.

He justified this on the grounds that ahead of the last plebiscite there was a “broad consensus” in the Scottish Parliament that it should be held.

This is the latest effort to try and move on from Alister Jack’s misguided decision to stick a number (60 per cent) on the sort of polling the SNP would need to be seeing to justify another vote. The last thing the Government should be doing is setting hard-and-fast benchmarks that can’t be properly adjusted to changing circumstances.

Meanwhile Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour, has compared Scottish independence to Brexit has he sets out his intention to compete with the Nationalists on the “politics of emotion”. According to the Daily Record, He said: “Every single argument that made Brexit chaotic and the wrong decision for the United Kingdom, multiply it by at least three times – that’s the consequences of leaving the United Kingdom.”

Scrap the border! Kilkenny farmer’s ‘no joke’ bid to get Ireland back into the Union

This is fun: a 19-year-old farmer from County Kilkenny has launched the Irish Unionist Party. Whilst conceding that he probably won’t win anything, Tristan Morrow says the idea is to lay the foundations for an all-Ireland pro-Union party in the event of Northern Ireland getting annexed by the Republic at some future date.

Whilst obviously a humorous story, it does raise serious and interesting questions about what sort of posture unionists would adopt in a post-unification scenario. ConHome sends Morrow and his comrades our fraternal good wishes.

Sturgeon’s book publisher probed by fraud cops over award of £295k taxpayers’ cash

Yet another report from the front line of the SNP’ ongoing efforts to suborn Scottish civil society. Sandstone Press, which published an edited collection of Nicola Sturgeon’s speeches and is run by an ardent Nationalist, is being investigated by the Financial Crimes Unit.

The Daily Record reports that Highlands and Islands Enterprise broke its own rules when making financial awards to the company, including grants worth £120,000 and a further £175,000 of loans. When grants from Creative Scotland are also taken into account, Sandstone Press has apparently received £500,000 of public money in the last 15 years.

It also stands accused of wrongdoing itself, specifically “making false statements about the number of people employed”.

Henry Hill: Frost secures a stay of execution for British trade with Northern Ireland, but no sign of a pardon yet

24 Jun

Progress? This morning’s papers report the the UK and the EU may be on the cusp of an agreement to extend the ‘grace periods’ for fresh foodstuffs being shipped from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. The FT reports:

“The EU offer of an extension would be subject to broad conditions, including UK commitments to work towards longer-term, more sustainable solutions for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and steps ensuring there are no threats to the single market.”

If true, this would spare the Government having to unilaterally extend them, as it has previously, in order to prevent east-west supply chains being severed by the Irish Sea border.

Obviously it is too soon to celebrate. It remains entirely unclear what ‘more sustainable solutions’ there are that reconcile the EU’s attitude towards what Maroš Šefčovič calls its “economic border” and the Government’s current determination to defend the integrity of the British internal market. Talk of ‘win-win’ outcomes from the Irish side usually end up meaning UK alignment with EU rules.

The border is also already undermining that market, redirecting trade southwards, undermining Northern Ireland’s economic links with the mainland and placing much of its economy under the political control of external institutions. Even if Lord Frost can secure a win on food supplies, it will take much more to truly offset the harm the Protocol is doing to the Union.

Nonetheless, he and Brandon Lewis surely deserve credit for at least getting Brussels back to the table. I reported in March how his appointment to his current post signalled that the Government recognised that there was a battle that needed to be fought over the Irish Sea, and so far Boris Johnson has backed that up. It signalled a welcome shift from last December, when it looked as if Michael Gove might be resigned to the loss of Britain-to-Ulster supply chains.

The EU’s decision to grant an extension also suggests that the Government’s strategy of taking small, carefully-targeted steps and taking pains to look like the reasonable party has paid off. Brussels clearly didn’t think that provoking the UK into another unilateral extension was a winning move.

But the real question is whether or not this signals any deeper shift in attitudes on their part. For all their warm words about solidarity with Ireland and protecting the peace in Ulster, the reality is that the EU has consistently prioritised the sanctity of its commercial frontier over either. Hence the insistence that they would demand the full panoply of checks on any land border, or failing that, that they might even introduce a sea border with the Republic.

If mutual respect and the warm words about the Belfast Agreement had any meaning, the breadth and depth of unionist and loyalist opposition to the Protocol would demand a rethink. Instead, as usual, they are being told to lump it. But if Agreement and the architecture it laid down continue to be wielded in a manner so obviously dismissive of unionists’ rights and concerns, their support for it will come under increasing strain.

The Irish Sea border is the product of a humiliating diplomatic defeat, blundered into by Theresa May and the old Northern Ireland Office. It is symptomatic of a deep-seated malaise in London’s approach to Northern Ireland that will be a long time in the fixing. But recognising the need to deliver fundamental changes to the Protocol is a good start.

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: 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.