Trade, peace and the Protocol: Northern Ireland

Image description: Ulster Defence Association mural with man wearing balaclava and aiming a gun. 

“It is the people of Northern Ireland who will suffer” if an agreement is not reached over the Northern Ireland Protocol, stated Lord Jay of Ewelme, the head of a House of Lords committee examining the problem. What’s new?

After months of economic deterioration and social instability in Northern Ireland, the Conservative government have laid out a command paper that attempts to justify a renegotiation of the initial withdrawal agreement.

Before any discussion of the practicality of this, let us return to 2019. Our dishevelled doughball of a Prime Minister promoted and supposedly delivered an “oven-ready” Brexit deal that entailed no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let us remember that this deal was universally decried by Unionist parties and met with trepidation within the political world.

The phrase ‘the writing was on the wall’ comes to mind – only that is too easy. The writing was in letters, statements, vocal protests and strewn across almost every media platform one could find. As such, we may choose between two conclusions: the Prime Minister either has less foresight than the three blind mice, or the deceptiveness of a faith healer. I’ll let you decide.

There are pressing problems that must be dealt with in Northern Ireland, and some problems the British government certainly has a right to demand flexibility over. Article five of the Northern Ireland Protocol effectively means that all goods currently entering Northern Ireland are subject to European Union checks, regardless of their ultimate destination.

This has engendered a bureaucratic problem: although the population of Northern Ireland makes up only 0.5 percent of the EU, from January to March this year the region was responsible for 20 percent of EU customs checks.

A proposed remedy to this problem is that a system based on trust, whereby the ultimate destination of goods moving across the Irish sea would be declared beforehand and penalties would be imposed on those who sought to exploit this system. However, when the EU are sternly protecting the integrity of their single market, a deal based on trust rather than prescription is undeniably quixotic.

More so, the EU are dealing with a government who are attempting to change an international agreement, an action which our own Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has admitted will “break international law” – yet, somehow, Westminster expect them to take seriously a new deal grounded in trust? This, to me, is utterly farcical.

Numerous media outlets have reported that Boris Johnson was seriously considering triggering Article 16 of the Protocol, which would enable unilateral abrogation of the terms and conditions laid out if economic and/or social barriers were proving insurmountable. When the Conservative’s command paper determined that the relationship between the EU and UK is currently “characterised by continued disagreement and mistrust”, such belligerent brinksmanship is reductive and petulant. The cavalier mentality of Westminster must be scaled back in order to make headway over these issues.

The EU are dealing with a government who are attempting to change an international agreement, an action which our own Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has admitted will “break international law”.

In a more optimistic light, Ursula von der Leyden has confirmed: “The EU will continue to be creative and flexible within the Protocol framework”, though they “will not renegotiate”. We may therefore see a relaxation on goods deemed ‘at risk’ of entering the EU single market through the soft border on the island of Ireland (‘risky’ goods have been very loosely defined so far). Particularly, we would hope to see pharmaceutical and agricultural goods move more freely between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, especially at a time when such goods are in high demand.

The message delivered by von der Leyden is nonetheless clear: full renegotiation is not possible. This, to most people who understand the binding nature of international agreements, should seem very straightforward. Indeed, as one aide to the EU chief told Channel 4 news, her statements were delivered in English “so that the British can understand [them]”. Playing this game of ‘act now think later’ during the 2019 Brexit-driven election is coming back to haunt our current government. Playing with the lives of UK citizens has ultimately, as it always was going to, come back to bite.

Though the binding nature of such agreements ought to be obvious, it is worth picking apart Westminster’s cries of EU intransigence a little more. When signing the Protocol, the EU and the UK both agreed that from 2024 the agreement could be revisited. It has been in place for under a year and Westminster is already trying to save-face by demonising the EU. This is not a matter of punishing the UK for Brexit, but an attempt to maintain some form of legalistic integrity at a time where it seems to be faltering.

“Playing with the lives of UK citizens has ultimately, as it always was going to, come back to bite”.

Beyond the trade and business implications of the Protocol, there is a burgeoning elephant in the room – violence.

To me, the common argument that things will never return to a pre-Good Friday Agreement circumstances seems less and less convincing by the day. There is a complacency that once peace is established it subsists. A brief caveat to the 1960s is worthwhile here.

Denis Tuohy, a Northern Irish broadcaster and journalist, wrote retrospectively of the mood in the late 1950s and early 1960s: “The sectarian violence of the twenties and thirties was not part of my generations thinking. Such bigotry was buried in the past”. Within a few years the Troubles had begun, and in 1972 alone, 468 people lost their lives. Let us not denounce, then, the idea that violence is a manifestation of some bygone era, but understand the frustrations and exasperation that may lead to it.

When political voices in the region of Northern Ireland are ignored, we can expect dire consequences. A return to the totality of the violence of the Troubles is hopefully unlikely, but to dismiss the potential for broader sectarianism is complacent, ridiculous, and overwhelmingly dangerous.

Indeed we saw incensed rioting in Derry in March, whilst the 12th July celebrations this year were particularly tense. Speaking to a personal friend from Derry, a man who was a priest and periodically a mediator in the latter years of the troubles, he has told me of his worry regarding the increasing potential for nationalist reaction.

Our government must re-scale its attitude and start to take real concern for the people of Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement was formed with a view to the UK remaining an integral part of the EU. Brexit has fractured the stability of this agreement; the continued lies and ignorance of Boris Johnson have led us to a precipice. Our government must re-scale its attitude and start to take real concern for the people of Northern Ireland.

It is this issue which is most important. Though we cannot undo Brexit, we need to develop more amicable relations with the EU and through this, regain some trust from the peoples of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Softer methods of negotiation may be somewhat embarrassing, but in respect to preserving peace in Ireland, it seems a line worth serious consideration.

Although writing in dramatically different circumstances, we can reflect on the words found in Bobby Sands’ jail diary: “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May god have mercy on my soul”.

As we look towards the summer, we certainly stand at a threshold regarding Northern Ireland’s future. God, however, will have no part in determining the path forwards – only our politicians will…

Image credit: David Blaikie