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If it’s broken, fix it

The NI Protocol has not worked, and the EU has done nothing to live up to its commitment to it being temporary


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement didn’t abolish the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It affirmed, and in the south formally legitimised, its existence. Nor does the Agreement, which has been broken multiple times since its inception — not least by the continued existence of the IRA — and formally overwritten repeatedly, in any way say that there should not be an enhanced trade border between the United Kingdom and Republic in the event of the former leaving the EU. 

Why would it? Even while both countries were in the EU it was sufficient of a trade border — and an openly invigilated one — that the IRA and its proxies smuggled billions over it.

What has been the EU’s response? The Protocol is perfect, it won’t be changed

Why then did Theresa May’s hapless government concede the self-serving EU and Irish claim that the Agreement somehow forbade a “hard [sic] border”? It was because Whitehall, Dublin and Brussels all wanted to use that pretended belief as an excuse to drag the rest of the UK back into the EU’s orbit behind Northern Ireland. 

This strategy failed, and Great Britain left. But the Brexit vote was a UK-wide one. And the basis of the Agreement everyone claims to respect is that Northern Ireland is in the UK until or unless it leaves. There was no sub-clause to the referendum that said, “if your region votes Remain, you’ll quasi stay in the EU”. 

So Ulster should have left too, in order to observe the Agreement. It did not do so because of the Northern Ireland Protocol that Michael Gove negotiated which created a border within the UK down the Irish Sea.

The Protocol has not, on any level, worked. The EU has done nothing to live up to its obligations, most notoriously Article 13.8 — the clause that commits to the protocol being temporary and its terms open to being superseded. 

The Protocol has not even worked in its own, EU-serving, terms. Trade has been diverted within the UK without action to rectify this. The political consequences have exposed the insincerity of those invoking the Agreement’s sanctity. The Protocol has collapsed the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. 

Yet what has been the EU’s response? The Protocol is perfect, it won’t be changed, it’ll be “rigorously implemented”, it “provides for the best of both worlds”, the problems with it will be sorted, we won’t tell you what those solutions will be to the problems that don’t exist, and on no account should the UK, says the European Union, break laws or agreements.

Some MPs agree with the EU. Toby Ellwood, the chairman of the Defence Committee, argued that we must not “breach an international agreement” because it would be “bad for British influence”. And it would strengthen the hand of President Putin. 

Possibly Mr Putin is strengthened more by the determination of European governments, particularly in Paris and Berlin, that their energy companies should continue to buy the oil and gas they still import from Russia than he is by the terms of Northern Ireland’s Protocol, but who can say?

But far more noxious than what a handful of Tory backbenchers claim is what ministers in foreign countries say. Simon Coveney, the foreign minister of the Irish Republic, suggested that the British government, by acting to remedy the problems that the Protocol is creating, could thereby “erode peace”. 

How? What form would this erosion take? Who would do it? Here, yet again, is a grotesquely irresponsible Irish government minister invoking the threat of Republican terrorism. To which threat the UK should give way, and if it doesn’t then that’s London’s fault. 

This rhetoric — and reasoning — is obscene. But what makes it worse is the lack of an official British response. Neither Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, nor Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, have said a word in response to Mr Coveney’s outrageous smear of them.

The government’s failure to make its case is one of the most dismal aspects of a Protocol that Whitehall was so keen to accomplish and keep as a means of eventually levering Britain back into the EU orbit it retained over Ulster.

As well as the risk of Republican bombs threatened against us by the Irish Republic’s foreign minister, Britain is also threatened with a trade war by the EU if we don’t do what we’re told. 

For their sake we must hope they wage it against us more determinedly than they do their sanctions against Russia. It would be a bad business for the international order if the EU seemed incredible. Who even knows whether this mooted trade war would be WTO-compliant? That’s bound to be high on Brussels’s mind.

The Protocol happened because the EU pushed its luck too far, while enough Remainers inside the UK, particularly in Whitehall and Parliament, wanted it for their own domestic ends. The EU shouldn’t push its luck any further. They have fewer friends here than they had when the original terms were negotiated and risk very much worse outcomes.

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