Wednesday 1 March 2023

The Northern Ireland Protocol has not really changed


The UK Government led by Theresa May made a perhaps deliberate, perhaps treacherous mistake to accept the Irish Government’s view that the Belfast Agreement meant that an open border without customs controls was required between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The EU latched onto that, and the rest is history.

What we should have done on telling the EU that we were leaving was to make clear to Ireland and the EU that what happened to goods and people moving from Northern Ireland to Ireland was your problem not ours. We would do our best not to have any border controls on our side of the border, but what you did on your side was your problem.

If Ireland wished to maintain open borders between itself and Northern Ireland in that case, it would probably have had to have accepted some sort of regulatory arrangement between itself and the Continent. Obviously, Ireland didn’t want this, for which reason it pushed the idea that maintaining an open border was Britain’s problem.

Theresa May accepted this because she wanted a Brexit where the UK would be closely aligned with EU. But having agreed to the principle that the Irish border must remain open, and it is Britain’s problem to maintain it open, we have been left with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This was the condition for leaving the EU at all. If Boris Johnson had not agreed to the Protocol there would have been no General Election in 2019, no landslide and no Brexit. We probably would have eventually had a second referendum or in time a General Election with a Remainer majority.

Has Rishi Sunak’s deal with the EU solved the problem of the Protocol? Not really. It does nothing to take us back to the Pre Theresa May position where the UK might have argued that keeping the Irish border open was an EU/Ireland problem. Unfortunately, that has taken on a semi legal status even though there is not a thing in the Belfast Agreement about borders or maintaining an all-Ireland economy. The UK Government could renege on open borders being our responsibility, but to do so would mean a diplomatic breech with Ireland, the EU and the USA.

But once you accept that the Ireland/Northern Ireland border has to be open and it is the UK’s responsibility to keep it that way then given Brexit and our leaving the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, then logically the border has to be between Britain and Northern Ireland. There is nowhere else to put it.

What Rishi Sunak has done is to gain some concessions. It will be easier to send goods from Britain to Northern Ireland. Shortages of British Goods in Northern Ireland are less likely. Northern Irish people will be less likely to notice a regulatory border between themselves and Britain. These things and others are worth having, but they don’t change the principle.

Northern Ireland remains part of the EU Single Market, while Britain does not. If this were not the case, then there would either need to be a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Ireland or between Ireland and the rest of the EU. But this means there is still a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Britain. The Protocol is like the IRA. “They haven't gone away you know”.

The UK Government would not accept an internal regulatory border however invisible with any other part of the UK. It is outrageous that we accepted it with Northern Ireland. No other country would accept such an arrangement. The idea that Cornwall would have an internal border with the rest of England is absurd.

But there is a difference between Northern Ireland and Cornwall. Cornwall does not have a Belfast Agreement. It does not have a neighbouring country that wishes to annex it. It doesn’t have approaching 50% of its population owing allegiance to that country and it did not have 30-year terrorist campaign that tried to turn the desire for annexation into reality.

Both the EU and the USA side with Ireland in its desire to one day take control of Northern Ireland. There is no similar situation in the EU or anywhere else. It’s like the USA and the EU siding with Russia over Crimea because it used to belong to Russia and most of the people living there feel Russian and speak Russian.

But we are where we are. If a sufficient number of people in Northern Ireland express a clear wish to join Ireland then they must have a vote on it. The people of Northern Ireland chose this by voting for the Belfast Agreement. Again, the UK could renounce the Belfast Agreement say Northern Ireland is ours forever, but the diplomatic and peace risks are too high.

Alternatively, we must accept that the only way to keep Northern Ireland in the UK long term is to compromise between those people who feel British and those people who feel Irish. If an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the price for keeping Catholics supporting Northern Ireland staying in the UK, then it may be the price that has to be paid. If it allows them to pretend that Ireland is united like its Rugby team and this polite fiction keeps the UK intact, let them feel this way.

We are faced with the limits of the possible. The UK Government could ditch the Protocol and fall out both with the EU and the USA, but now is just the moment when cooperation between these powers is necessary to defeat Russia in Ukraine.

There is a once in one-hundred-year opportunity to decisively defeat Russia in the field. This will change the whole security situation allowing us to spend less on defence against Russia and more on defence against China, which is by far the greater threat.

Britain has only ever had a limited interest in “the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”. It is a pity, but the last 100 years tell us that it is so. Rishi Sunak hopes to make the issue of the Protocol go away, because fundamentally he hopes the issue of Northern Ireland goes away. This was the same mentality that saw Churchill want to do a deal with de Valera during World War II and various UK Governments coming up with deals with Ireland during the Troubles. This culminated in saying if you can’t win Northern Ireland by war, you can win it with votes.

All of this led to the Protocol. No other state in the world would allow another to annex its territory democratically, but then no other state in the world would allow the EU or the USA to demand an internal border between parts of its own territory. We still see dreary steeples when we should see our fellow citizens and our own land. But we don’t and we never really did.