Michael Gove and Brandon Lewis | Paul Davey / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The NI WhatsApp war

Is a trade body being excluded by Ministers because they’ve criticised the NI protocol?

The Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and his opposite number on the UK-EU joint committee Maroš Šefčovič (and now on the UK-EU Partnership Council too) have been involved in a letter-writing war recently over the Northern Ireland protocol. Mr Gove asked for current grace periods to be extended, whilst Mr Šefčovič said the issues were just “teething problems” and that the UK wasn’t even complying with the protocol. Noticeably the British government is not seeking to alter the fundamentals of the NIP for UK purposes – as it claimed it was in the abortive ruse of the Internal Market bill amendments last year  – but to make it work as per the EU’s needs.

Both Gove and Šefčovič have agreed to meet Northern Irish business lobby groups to hear their concerns along with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. While once foreign officials discussing internal UK arrangements would have been a clear red, white and blue line for London, that is clearly not the case now. We are some distance from Michael Gove’s performative noises about where exactly the EU’s invigilating officials will have to sleep at night, after they do their work inside the UK during the day.

However, one trade lobby group appears to have been deliberately excluded from the group meeting the UK government and the Commission. The Road Haulage Association say despite some positive aspects of the deal, Ulster plainly does much more business with the rest of the UK and trade barriers between their largest market means its members have deep concerns about the protocol. Could this be the reason they were excluded from the discussions? Their policy manager said he only found out about the meeting via Twitter and when he checked the NI Business WhatsApp group he found he had been removed in mid January (he has since been re-added after complaining).

Separately the RHA has asked for a meeting with the Northern Ireland Secretary several times to discuss the issues but each email has been ignored. Whatever warm words ministers like Brandon Lewis occasionally say in an effort to reassure unionists, the permanent hostility of Northern Ireland Office officials is an ever present factor. The NIO mindset is rigidly pro-NIP according to multiple sources, and this does seem to reflect the way local NIP-sceptical organisations are being excluded even from the most basic contact with UK ministers.

Groups like Manufacturing NI, Logistics UK, the NI Retail Consortium and the CBI Northern Ireland have been strong supporters of the Protocol, and are duly being lined up to meet the Commission alongside UK ministers (who are legally little more than observers, in terms of the application of the Protocol). It seems strange that Michael Gove, who claims to want to deal with the issues thrown up by his intra-UK border, would block the one group that is offering a more nuanced assessment of the Protocol. It would be odd if this was deliberate, but perhaps it’s all a misunderstanding and their invitation is being held at Belfast customs. Or perhaps the NIO “blob” is still more effective than the Education one Mr Gove wrestled with so many years ago.

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