(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Who backed the backstop?

No one wants to own Boris’s Northern Ireland Protocol

In January 2021, at the end of Brexit transition period, the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol will come into effect. For those that have forgotten, this protocol ensures that no additional infrastructure or checks will occur in trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It will do this by Northern Ireland effectively remaining in the EU single market for goods and its customs union. This comes at the expense of creating a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Yet with just over five months to go, it remains unclear how the protocol will be implemented. Not only are there differences between the UK and EU on what was agreed but there are also questions surrounding the processes and systems that will need to be in place for it to work. If how it will be implemented remains shrouded in mystery, there is increasing evidence of the economic damage it will do to Northern Ireland’s economy.

With just over five months to go, it remains unclear how the protocol will be implemented

One of the most fraught issues is the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. In 2018 such trade amounted to £10.4 billion, with the majority of this destined for retail. Under the protocol this trade would require checks and additional paperwork. Various estimates exist on the cost of this, one as high as £6,000 per consignment. The worry is that additional costs would then make much of the trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland untenable. This was recently recognised by the House of Lords European Union Committee, which warned that in the absence of a ‘flexible approach…there is a real danger that businesses based in Great Britain could conclude that it is economically unviable to continue to operate in Northern Ireland, leading in turn to reduced choice and higher costs for Northern Ireland consumers, thus undermining Northern Ireland’s economic model, [and] its future prosperity.’

In the midst of this, the political response from Northern Ireland has been decidedly mixed. Sinn Fein, unsurprisingly, has expressed little concern with Northern Ireland’s economic model being undermined. The DUP, depending on who is speaking, shifts from pragmatism, to potential economic benefits, to outright opposition. The UUP a wilderness crying in a voice. Yet of all the Northern Irish parties, the most risible response has come from the Alliance Party and the SDLP. Both have taken to telling the DUP to ‘own it’ if it expresses any opposition or criticism of the protocol and the economic damage it entails. In a recent episode of this, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson asked the Prime Minster how Northern Ireland could remain a full part of the UK if border control posts were required at the port of Larne. This offence resulted in elected representatives from both parties descending on social media to blame this on the DUP. The DUP, they say, created this mess and now they, pragmatists that they are, just want to minimise its impact.  A performance now regularly repeated.

The colossal, glaring, hypocrisy of this should not – must not – be lost. For whatever one thinks about the DUP and what it should or shouldn’t have done on Theresa May’s deal, or its decision to concede a regulatory border last autumn, the origin of the trade border we now face is the Northern Ireland backstop. The same Northern Ireland backstop that was energetically supported by both Alliance and SDLP during the Article 50 negotiations.

Perhaps some need reminding of what the Northern Ireland backstop, or ‘the old protocol’ as some fondly refer to it, was. Well, it was Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market for certain goods and the EU customs union. If this sounds similar to above, it should do. For both versions effectively do the same thing – keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s trading structures. The inevitable consequence of this is a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and with this comes everything that trade experts say – checks, declarations, systems, infrastructure &.c. – is required to manage them.

The origin of the trade border we now face is the Northern Ireland backstop

So reminded, it’s also necessary to recall that Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s trading structures didn’t just happen. It wasn’t inevitable. It was a choice. People had to say things and, in some cases, even do things. The ‘people’ referred to here would make a long list, so without rehearsing it whole and entire, it importantly included Northern Irish business lobbyists and academics but also Sinn Fein and, yes, Alliance and the SDLP. One wouldn’t want to be so imprudent and assign causes but the carrying of the Northern Ireland backstop was done here. The argument for it simply couldn’t have succeeded without this support. In this, then, they played no small part in the creation of an East/West border.

‘But’, one objects, ‘the new protocol we oppose, is not the old protocol we supported’. This, I believe, is called ‘straining at gnats’. Yes, it’s true that there are differences between the two versions of the protocol but these are irrelevant to the question. As already suggested, in their central features and objectives both protocols are substantively doing the same thing. More importantly, we have the new protocol because we had the old protocol; the arguments for needing the old transferable to the new.

What remains the case is that these groups and parties argued for Northern Ireland remaining in EU trade structures, irrespective of what happened in Great Britain. They argued for this in the most solemn of tones too, even summoning up the grim spectre of a terrorist campaign on the UK/RoI border. It just had to be the case, they said. They agreed with the EU that it had to be legally operable, that it had to be ‘all-weather’. It doesn’t matter if this featured as one, two or three in a scale of values (one being stopping Brexit), in the circumstance of the UK leaving the EU this was the preference argued for and it is with us still.

The usual response to this is that May’s Brexit deal avoided the problems through something like a UK backstop; the DUP’s voting against this one reason we are told they are responsible for present difficulties. This is deeply disingenuous, simply because there never was a UK backstop. There was the Northern Ireland backstop and various overlays to mitigate the consequences of this and then only, as would be a matter of law, for a finite period of time. The UK sans Northern Ireland would be free to diverge and if it did, those particular mitigations would cease. In other words, the mitigations required by May’s deal are evidence of the fact of a trade border. It is not the absence of mitigations that is the cause, it is Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s trading structures. As with the old, so too with the new.

This brings me back to the hypocrisy.  Now the devastating economic consequences of erecting a trade border with Northern Ireland’s single biggest market are dawning on those that facilitated it, they would like to shift the responsibility for their success in creating it. It would be an injustice to their efforts if they were to succeed in this.

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