The political situation in Northern Ireland is, undoubtedly, difficult. As one fictional minister from the Armando Iannucci movie In The Loop once explained to a fictional foreign government, we have a saying for situations like this in the UK: ‘difficult, difficult, lemon difficult’.
While no solution is perfect, it is fair to say that any proposal does require understanding and sensitivity around the particular, fragile, and unique political circumstances across the Province.
And the failure of the Protocol is, at least in the eyes of the UK government, largely down to how the EU has implemented it; with an uncompromising attitude, a failure to understand the caution required, and in particular the European Court of Justice’s heavy-handed interpretation of its provisions.
It is understandable that the UK government would have presumed a degree of sensitivity on the EU’s part, given that European politicians spent three years holding up negotiations on the pretence that they cared deeply about the Good Friday Agreement.
What a sham that argument has proven to be.
Had the peace process genuinely been at the forefront of the EU’s mind, the Protocol would have been implemented in a more malleable, humane and sensitive manner.
As things stand, the ECJ took the most officious path, squeezing any leeway it could out of implementation. We even got to the stage where tractors were stopped from entering Northern Ireland because their wheel tracks contained non-compliant GB mud.
No wonder the former Brexit minister Lord Frost was so insistent that the ECJ must be part of the renegotiation conversations. Officious, aggressive, and all too prescriptive interpretation of any agreement is fundamentally not in keeping with the peace process.
Whatever is agreed politically in the Province, Brexit-related or otherwise, requires the opposite of the EU’s uncompromising, nit-picking bureaucratic approach.
To that end something very different is required.
Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, was right to call time on the bizarre system of Great Britain-NI checks currently in place. Not a single thing has changed about UK food compared to when the whole country was in the single market, yet currently lorries going in to Northern Ireland have to go through the performative, time-consuming farce of being checked.
Checked for what is anyone’s guess. Given the rules are currently the same either side of the Irish Sea it is clearly all disruptive theatre.
Yet there is more to it than that. When the UK changes its rules, as we rightly should, is the EU seriously suggesting that they would not trust us at all to have a regime fit for human consumption? That our food would suddenly be so toxic that every lorry making its way across the Irish Sea must individually be searched?
Of course, the EU has every right to worry about products entering its market. However, the ‘problem’ of a few lorries of British food, is minuscule when set against the crisis that further political breakdown in Northern Ireland would create.
If we are to make any progress here, both sides need to consider this situation from first principles. For the EU that means asking, realistically, what they are so afraid of? Why would spot checks inland not be enough to head off any perceived threat to the integrity of the single market?
A very tiny number of perfectly safe, high-standard British goods making their way unchecked into the Republic of Ireland is, frankly, a tiny price to pay for the prize of sustained political stability. The idea it would be a big problem or a threat to the single market is an entirely political invention, designed purely to push the UK into a corner.
If the EU honestly wants a solution in Northern Ireland, then it’s time to accept that reality is messy. Attempts to hermetically seal the island of Ireland are as damaging as they are petty. A solution based on sensitivity, trust and occasional inland checks is by far the best way out of this mess.
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