(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What the Protocol border inside the UK is doing

What Jeffrey Donaldson thinks the government should do about that

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have said freight levels to Ulster are at usual levels for the season and that any issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into force at the start of the year, are teething problems. But the DUP say the Protocol, so enthusiastically cheered on by Remainers, nationalists and members of Theresa May’s government, undermines the Belfast Agreement and needs to be scrapped as soon as possible, not least because it will do severe damage to the Northern Irish economy. Today I spoke to Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s Westminster leader, who says Boris Johnson “knows that this hasn’t delivered what he promised” but adds that there is “little point in us beating up the Prime Minister over this”, calling instead for the Government to rectify the issue.

The Prime Minister has said publicly that he is willing to invoke Article 16, the clause which allows the UK to suspend the protocol, but there are suggestions that the DUP believe if they criticise Boris Johnson and Michael Gove too heavily, this will make it less likely to to happen.

When I asked Donaldson if a long term effect would be Northern Ireland becoming less integrated with rUK [rest of UK] trade and instead pivoting towards greater trade with the Republic he said it would be “a long road given the massive extent to which NI trades with GB” and that it was more likely that the economy of NI would decline instead. It’s a solid unionist answer but the tightrope Donaldson seems to be walking is to say that the existence of the protocol means it puts the Union in danger but that Northern Ireland is not at risk of becoming a de-facto part of the Republic. The sky will fall in, but not tomorrow, though something should be done about it, today. A message which for all that it might be true is not an easy one to deliver.

The DUP voted alongside the ERG ‘Spartans’ against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement but broke with the Tory Brexiteers (or the Tories broke with the DUP depending on your perspective) over Boris Johnson’s version. Does Donaldson feel let down by his Brexiteer colleagues? “I could spend the next few months going back over what happened and how wrong I feel that is, but that wouldn’t solve this problem”. He said he is engaging with the ERG and asking for their support but pointedly suggests the ERG might not have understood the implications for the internal market of the UK or the implications for the Union when they voted for it back in December 2019. But the DUP may now be on their own politically. At the Liaison Committee last week Sir Bernard Jenkin, one of the ‘Spartans’, said he hoped things could be solved without invoking Article 16 of the protocol. Members of the ERG like John Redwood who do wish to take up the cause of Ulster are in the unenviable position of trying to undermine things most of them voted for and declared was part of a legitimate Brexit.

We wait to see how many of the trade issues are teething problems and how much of the disruption will mean permanent damage to the region

The DUP’s Westminster leader is clearly aggrieved by the actions of the Government, and the fact that under the rules his constituents are even struggling to order things inside the UK on Amazon, but he reserved his strongest criticism for the chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, the Tory MP Simon Hoare. A few weeks ago during an evidence session, the DUP’s Ian Paisley MP asked industry representatives if they wanted the Government to invoke Article 16. The witnesses to the committee were outlining a long list of problems they’d experienced including the fact that supermarkets had shortages and that NI’s century old pedigree trade in livestock was set to end with the protocol in place. But Hoare said it would be “eccentric” to get rid of it after it had only just been introduced, likening it to throwing away a new computer before you’d read the instructions. When I asked Donaldson about this comment he didn’t hold back: “We have three months here of a grace period, if Simon is suggesting that we wait for the end of three months sitting looking at the manual in the hope that the computer will magically switch itself on we would be absolute fools, that would be an eccentric approach…with all due respect to Simon, we’ve read the manual – in fact we warned him and his colleagues that what the manual said would create the problems that we now have… that the computer wouldn’t switch on and operate in the way they thought it would”. And he also offered the chair some advice: “Not only should people read the Northern Ireland protocol, it might be a good idea to read the Belfast Agreement and see what it says about Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom and how this protocol undermines that relationship.”

We wait to see how many of the trade issues are teething problems and how much of the disruption will mean permanent damage to the region of the UK with the weakest, most public sector-dependent economy. We also will presumably discover whether the Prime Minister really is considering invoking Article 16 of the protocol, or whether that turns out to be more rhetorical than strictly factual. Were Boris Johnson to follow through on his past promises to the Unionists, he’s unlikely to receive much encouragement to do so from his colleague, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who championed Theresa May’s Backstop, and has actually put in the NIP in place. While the outcome for Northern Ireland is uncertain, perhaps the only lesson we can draw on this at present is to read everything before agreeing to it. Though obviously sometimes rereading some things only reminds us how quickly apparently deeply held opinions can melt away.

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