10 June 2021

Whatever the two sides agree, this Protocol is not democracy – and it isn’t Brexit


When the Northern Ireland Protocol was introduced at the start of 2021, it immediately disrupted businesses’ supply chains and inconvenienced consumers, who faced shortages of goods and extra delivery costs. Soon, this tiny province of 1.8 million people was conducting one fifth of the total number of border checks taking place across the entire EU.

This extraordinary barrier to trade, it is important to remember, affected products travelling from one part of the UK to another. Companies in Great Britain complained that it was now easier and less expensive to send many categories of goods to France, or in some cases to the far ends of Asia, than Northern Ireland.

The Government agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol and implemented its provisions, but it recognised at least that it was causing serious problems. Its tone stiffened after the EU  temporarily triggered the Protocol’s emergency brake, Article 16, in an attempt to stop Covid-19 vaccines reaching the UK through Ulster. Then, when Lord Frost became Brexit Minister and replaced Michael Gove as co-chair of the ‘joint committee’ that manages the workings of the Withdrawal Agreement, Britain’s complaints about the arrangements intensified.

Notably, though, the Government still said it wanted to make the Protocol work. Even now, it is not seeking to get rid of this constitutional atrocity that divides up the UK by placing a political and economic border down the Irish Sea. For that reason, it’s even more bizarre that the EU, which says it has Northern Ireland’s interests at heart, is threatening to punish Britain “swiftly, firmly and resolutely” if it fails to ban chilled meats from entering the province from Great Britain after the end of June.

This vindictive warning was issued by the EU Commission’s vice-president, Maros Sefcovic, in a Daily Telegraph column earlier this week.

You will recall that Brussels claims the Protocol is needed to protect the Belfast Agreement and Northern Ireland’s peace process. It is supported strongly by the Irish Republic’s government and, seemingly, by the US President. Ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall, where Joe Biden is expected to lecture Boris Johnson on the importance of the Irish Sea border, his spokesman told the BBC that it is “critical to ensuring that the spirit, promise and future” of the Good Friday accord is preserved.

So far, the Protocol has been implemented only in part. The Government unilaterally extended ‘grace periods’ designed to keep food and parcels moving freely into Northern Ireland. A similar arrangement delayed the introduction of ‘pet passports’ for animals travelling between the province and Great Britain. A bilateral grace period for chilled meats expires at the end of this month and, terrifyingly, next year, Northern Ireland will fall under European rather than British regulations on medicines.

If this aspect of the Protocol had started a year earlier, it’s likely that the province’s coronavirus vaccination programme would be lagging behind the rest of the UK with the EU and the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, the Belfast News Letter and The Times revealed last month that new fast-tracked cancer drugs would not be available in Northern Ireland on the same basis as Great Britain. When Brussels apparatchiks tried to rubbish this story, the News Letter’s political editor, Sam McBride, produced painstaking proof that showed even the EU was confused by the Protocol’s impact.

We’ve now reached a situation where the likes of Sefcovic, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney and even Joe Biden are urging Britain to empty the province’s supermarket shelves, punish its pet owners and deprive its cancer patients of life-saving drugs, in order to protect the ‘peace process’. To add a further layer of surreality, there are parties in Northern Ireland that are so in hock to the EU that they too are lambasting the government for failing to implement an even more damaging interpretation of the Protocol.

There is a lot of blame to go round for this lamentable situation.

The UK government is culpable for agreeing to a document that always contained the potential for this kind of disruption and naively believing that the EU would expect only goods genuinely ‘at risk’ of entering its single market to be subjected to checks and paperwork. Unionist politicians are to blame for failing to identify and highlight these problems as they developed. The DUP baulked at customs controls in Irish Sea ports but, initially, it actually agreed to a regulatory border for goods. Brussels is responsible for using Northern Ireland ruthlessly to punish Britain and force it into ‘dynamic alignment’ with its food regulations and animal hygiene rules. Even as it claimed to be protecting peace, the EU recklessly exploited divisions in a part of the world that has recently suffered political violence.

In a recent PoliticalOD podcast, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader, Jim Allister, explained how separatists in Ulster were prepared to tolerate the consequences of the Protocol in order to build an “all-Ireland economy” and dilute British power in the province. They were assisted in this project by the Dublin government, with its soft-nationalist assumption that it is entitled to an ever-increasing say in Northern Ireland’s affairs.

Then there are the inveterate pro-Europeans, on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Remainers in London who tried to use the province to derail Brexit and assimilated the notion that it must be treated differently to the rest of the UK. And the pro-EU academics and politicians in Northern Ireland (like the Alliance Party), who sneer at ‘irrational’ national allegiances, but try to preserve their links to Brussels with bull-headed short-sightedness, even if it means economic hardship and the degradation of democracy.

When the UK’s negotiators met their EU counterparts yesterday Lord Frost noted that “there weren’t any breakdowns but there weren’t any breakthroughs either and we’re going to carry on talking”. The EU claims it has shown pragmatism and flexibility, but there is little evidence that it understands or cares about the way its hardline stance is affecting Northern Irish politics. For the moment, the Government is talking tough, but it has talked tough before only to capitulate to Brussels’ demands at the last moment.

Even if the two sides finally agree to a deal that minimises trade problems between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there is a glaring constitutional elephant in the room. The Protocol divides up our nation state and hands substantive powers over part of the UK to the EU. It’s not democracy and it certainly isn’t Brexit.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.