By Steve Bell
On Wednesday 21st July, the Conservative government presented a document to Parliament outlining their proposals to renegotiate with the European Union (EU) the agreed Protocol covering Northern Ireland. The document (1) seeks to overturn the agreement in principle reached with the EU in October 2019. Further negotiations took place during 2020 to agree practical arrangements, which were concluded in December 2020. In just six months, the Tories have discovered that the Protocol operates in a manner that they pretended it wouldn’t.
Not surprisingly, the immediate response of the EU has been to refuse to reopen negotiations, whilst being prepared to discuss British concerns. In the background to these talks is a threat from the British government. Article 16 of the Protocol allows for unilateral action by either party where there is evidence of social and economic difficulties. The Tories document states that “It is nevertheless clear that the circumstances exist to justify using Article 16″(2). Although the document continues that this is not appropriate immediately, it states “such action remains on the table”. A report in the Daily Telegraph, dated 24th July, claims that Prime Minister Johnson wanted to immediately proceed with unilateral action, but was only persuaded by Lord Frost, the responsible minister.
Matters may come to a head by September when the “grace period” ends on some sectors exemption from Protocol provisions. Clearly the potential exists for both a major conflict with the EU, and for the British government to inflame a tense situation inside the six counties of the north of Ireland.
Brexit – the origin of the conflict
The origin of the problem lies in the imposition of Brexit on a part of Ireland, creating inevitable tension within a natural market. Though never referred to by the Tories, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by a majority of 55.8% to 44.2%. This is one of a number of majorities that the British government has decided to ignore in its policy.
Such a majority includes a definite section of the unionist community, particularly from the agri-business sector. The second largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), campaigned to remain. The largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party(DUP), campaigned for leave despite being in an informal coalition with David Cameron’s Tory government.
But the fact is that for Ireland, on both sides of the island’s partition, there is not a good form of Brexit. This was a point made repeatedly by Sinn Féin in the negotiations around the Protocol, and it’s ill fated predecessor, “the Backstop”.
During the 2016 referendum campaign the rhetoric of the “Leave” supporting Tories, like Johnson, was focused on “control of our borders”. Generally this was simple code for racist scaremongering about migrant workers. But once the government has to enact the policy the issue becomes how, and where, the border is to be drawn. Either the EU single market will be protected by having a hard border on the island of Ireland, the worst result. Or the six counties will be included within the single market with an inevitable border drawn between the north and Britain in the Irish Sea, the least bad result.
The Protocol is an expression of the latter. Whilst not formally a part of the EU, Northern Ireland is covered by EU market terms. Consequently though remaining part of the UK, its economy is aligned in regulation by the EU, and therefore the rest of Ireland, rather than Britain. Trade between Britain and Northern Ireland has become trade between two different markets within a single state.
The Protocol was negotiated to minimise the friction, i.e. the additional administrative and regulatory differences. What it could not do was remove all friction, particularly if there is a growth in differences in regulations between the two markets. Brexit was pursued exactly to remove British products and services from EU standards. The aim being to compete by reducing labour protections and product standards, thus lowering British commodity prices. But even in the short time of its operation, the Protocol has demonstrated that taking the UK out of the EU increases the cost of trading with the EU.
Paying the Brexit price
The evidence in the document is very revealing. For agri-food goods various health certificates are required for movement between markets. “The Northern Ireland Executive has estimated that from January to March this year the volume of checks represented approximately 20% of the EU total, and more than any single EU Member State – despite Northern Ireland’s population of 1.8 million people being 0.5% of that of the EU as a whole.”(3)
Agri-food goods are an important sector of the local economy. However, the problem appears to be a more general one: “…about 30% of small businesses in Northern Ireland had reported a decline in sales to Great Britain. Another survey of Northern Ireland manufacturers found that more than three quarters reported a negative impact on their business in the first three months of 2021, with about 40% suggesting this was liable to persist.”(4)
Equally, checks have to be made of goods going into Northern Ireland from Britain. So we learn that: “…at least 200 companies in Great Britain have stopped servicing the Northern Ireland market, plants and trees long sourced from Britain can no longer be stocked in nurseries or garden centres in Northern Ireland; supermarkets have reduced their product lines due to delays and barriers in moving goods; and the cost of deliveries for those who do serve the market continue to increase.”(4)
If there is a decline in trade between Northern Ireland and Britain then this has been filled by an increase in trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland. “The value of Ireland’s exports of goods to Northern Ireland is trending far above historic levels in 2021; up by nearly 40% this year compared to the same period in 2020, and by more than 50% in the same period in 2018. Some sectors particularly susceptible to that diversion, such as food and pharmaceuticals, have experienced even stronger growth.”(6) It can hardly be a surprise that, as British companies withdraw from trading, they are replaced by Irish or EU companies. Demand has not been reduced, other suppliers occupy the vacant market space.
This may be a shock to those who do not understand the imperialist character of Britain’s involvement in Ireland. Successive British governments have subsidised the functioning of the Ulster statelet. Public money has been used to create a stable social framework allowing for investment and exploitation, by private capital. That is the traditional functioning of colonialism. Capital from Britain enters the region not for sentimental or patriotic reasons, but simply to make a profit. If it becomes less profitable then capital will withdraw, regardless of the formal political status of the colony.
Tory lies stoke tensions
The purely ‘economic’ issues have been overlaid with a very serious political issue. The traditional pro-unionist and anti-Irish nationalist stance of the Conservative Party meant that in negotiations with the EU Johnson’s government was concerned to assuage DUP fears that any legal divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland would strengthen the dynamic towards Irish reunification.
The only way to avoid this would be to place the border at the point of the historic partition of Ireland. However, this would effectively destroy the Good Friday Agreement, and thus bring the British government into conflict with the nationalist community in the north, the Irish government, the EU and the US government. A much more formidable alliance for the British government to confront than the DUP.
So Johnson’s government did what Tory governments do best. They lied to the DUP and pretended that they would protect Northern Ireland’s trading inside the UK without a border in the Irish Sea. On November 15th 2019, Johnson told LBC that; “I believe in it passionately and there will be no border down the Irish Sea”. Journalist Sam McBride, in the Belfast Newsletter, drew attention to the interview Boris Johnson gave with Sky News in December 2019. At that interview: “He said there would ‘absolutely not’ be checks, and claimed the deal differed from that of Theresa May because ‘it allows the whole of the UK to come out of the EU – including Northern Ireland’, and added: ‘There’s no question of there being checks on goods going NI – GB or GB – NI'”.(7)
On August 15th 2020, in discussions with business leaders in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph reported that Boris Johnson said that: “There will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body.” Later footage emerged of him telling the exporters that they will not have to complete extra forms. Johnson said: “You will absolutely not”, and that if any business is asked to fill in such paperwork, they should telephone the prime minister “and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.” On January 1st 2021, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis tweeted: “There is no Irish Sea Border. As we have seen today, the important preparations the Government and businesses have taken to prepare for the end of the Transition Period are keeeping goods flowing freely around the country, including between GB and NI.” Such a triumph on the first day of operation soon turned sour.
Such an impressive and consistent series of untruths had an inevitable political impact. Within some sections of the unionist and loyalist community the operation of the Protocol became a cause celebre. Of course, Johnson’s government disavows its responsibility, claiming instead that it is EU inflexibility that has created obstacles. This is also not true, but has been given some appearance of reality when, in late January this year, the EU Commission attempted to impose a bloc on Covid vaccine exports from the bloc to Northern Ireland. This was met with horror by all political trends on both sides of the border in Ireland, and the Commission quickly withdrew. But such a bureaucratic and arbitrary action has provided the Tories with a legend to hide their own falsifications.
The crisis in the DUP
For the most inward looking sections of unionism the Protocol has to be simply overturned. Despite having supported Brexit, the DUP wants to deny any necessary connection between Brexit and the provisions in the Protocol. The DUP already felt aggrieved with the Tory government after having propped up Theresa May’s government, supported Johnson in the EU referendum, yet received little reward for such favours. The negotiations around the Protocol caused concern, and the experience of its operation confirmed the betrayal.
The sight of the DUP being led by the nose impacted upon the DUP’s popularity. At the last NI Assembly election in 2017, the DUP secured 28.1% of the vote. In the LucidTalk opinion polls it secured 23% in October 2020, 19% in January 2021, and 16% in May 2021.(8) A serious crisis erupted within the leadership with their leader, Arlene Foster resigning in late April, stepping down as DUP leader and as First Minister.
The new leader, Edwin Poots came from the most religiously conservative section of the party and won by one vote in a poll of MPs and MLAs. His tenure lasted three weeks until June 17th, after making an agreement with the British government on nominating a new First Minister, Paul Givan, without having clearance from DUP representatives. His election represented a fracturing of the DUP towards the right, as most of the support the DUP lost appears to have gone to the Traditional Ulster Voice, which registered 2.6% of the vote in the last Assembly election, but stood at 11% in the May poll. These shifts suggested a growing danger of isolation for the DUP. In the May 2021 poll, Poots was the most unpopular leader with a rating of minus 52%, – only the British Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis topped that with a rating of minus 65%.
The coup against Poots was really about the survival of the DUP. Jeffrey Donaldson is the new leader, after having earlier lost to Poots. He has a number of key concerns. He has to ensure that the DUP remains the dominant party within unionism, and the largest party in the forthcoming Assembly elections in May 2022. To do this, he has to push the DUP back to more mainstream positions on social questions. And, he has to press the British government to achieve a deal with the EU which removes the most obvious features of the border in the Irish Sea.
In an interview with The Times he posed the issue as the British government honouring the commitments it had previously made: “If the government doesn’t live up to these commitments and if the outcome fails to remove the Irish Sea border then …there is no way we can work and co-operate on a North South basis when the Irish government and the EU are undermining our relationship with Great Britain.”(9) Donaldson is unable to defend the DUP’s part in creating the difficulty. It is Brexit, and the introduction of distinct markets between Britain and Northern Ireland that is “undermining our relationship”.
The impasse in the hardline unionist/loyalist community once again expresses itself as a refusal to face facts. Inevitably, the DUP threatens the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement it opposed and campaigned against. Yet in this it still tries to present itself as somehow representing the whole of Northern Ireland.
No answers but Tories fan flames
There were violent protests in April from loyalists, and a number of unlawful parades were organised in May. In their document the Tories play up the weight of the movement, presumably in order to better pressure the EU. But this is highly irresponsible, and the claim is that the Protocol, that the British government signed is actually a threat to the Good Friday Agreement.
Thus we read: ” …a situation has emerged in which the extent, breadth and unanimity of opposition from those in the unionist tradition raises serious questions about parity of esteem, risking undermining the functioning of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement institutions…”(10). And: “…disruption to trade has in turn exacerbated the perceptions of separation and threat to identity with the unionist community which, in the context of Northern Ireland, constitute a particularly serious and pressing societal difficulty.”(11)
The decisive practical impact of the Protocol has been in trading/economic conditions, which bear equally upon both unionist and nationalist communities, as either consumers or producers. The wounded pride of unionists who trusted the British government’s lies does not constitute a “pressing societal difficulty”. To suggest that the “parity of esteem” is seriously questioned by the Protocol is to actively give credence to the dangerous response from sections of the loyalist community.
This is further reinforced by the British government implying that “the perception of separation and threat to identity within the unionist community” is justification for the British government to break with the Protocol. With the typical conventional hypocrisy of the British government, it appears to distance itself from unionist concerns – i.e., it is a “perception” not a reality, whilst acting for its own convenience by invoking that very “perception”. That really is fanning the flames while pleading for calm.
The size and significance of the unionist opposition to the Protocol is played up by the Tories. In this, they selectively utilize the findings of polling conducted by Queens University Belfast on voter attitudes to the Protocol.(12) The Tories’ document highlights two results. Firstly, the apparently even split in support for or against the Protocol: “…which is not a sustainable basis on which to proceed.”(13) Secondly, the two-thirds who are: “concerned about the effects of the Protocol on Northern Ireland’s economy and political stability.”(14)
None of the findings are as clear cut as suggested. The Tories deliberately overlook the bulk of the findings. The first oversight is the result that 37% believe Brexit is a good thing, compared to 57% who disagree. This suggests a larger anti-Brexit majority, six months after the Protocol, and five years after the referendum. No wonder the Tories avoid the reference. This in turn asserts itself in a practical solution where 57% are in favour of the UK being regulatory aligned to the EU compared to 37% against. Tory talk of “unanimity” in unionists’ opposition suddenly appears a fabrication.
The vote on whether the Protocol is appropriate for managing the effects of Brexit was 47% to 47%. But the other evidence would suggest that creating a stable majority out of such a division is only possible with greater and more open alignment with the EU, rather than the Tories preferred retreat to isolation.
Evidently, with the growth of tension, there are major concerns across the population and communities about how the difficulties are to be resolved. These are doubtless amplified by the fact that it is Johnson’s government which is ‘entrusted’ with resolving them. Yet it is completely misleading to suggest there is a majority for scrapping the Protocol. In response to the question whether the Protocol provides Northern Ireland with a “unique set of post-Brexit opportunities compared to the rest of the UK which if exploited could benefit Northern Ireland”, 57% agree and a third disagreed. The Tories and DUP are pursuing an entirely opposite course to the majority view in the north.
Other findings also point in a direction contrary to the Tories and DUP. 51% disagree with the proposal to shift checks and controls to the land border with the south, compared to 38% who agree. 46% want greater North/South ministerial involvement, compared to 40% against. 67% support the idea of British government and EU representatives giving reports on implementation of the Protocol to the Assembly.
Taken in the round, the survey speaks against the Tories’ proposals to ditch the Protocol, and in favour of making the Protocol work effectively.
One thing is certain, the Tories’ document doesn’t provide the solution. The majority of the proposals are based on positions that were rejected in the past negotiations around the Protocol. Those which aren’t a reiteration are based on attempts to remove entirely, or by degrees, EU involvement in the monitoring, or control, of trade between Britain and Ireland. The suggestion being that this will be based on good will, or at a push, British domestic legislation, to enforce the protection of the EU’s single market. That, and pleas for exemptions and a general standstill on the Protocol appear to be the sum total of British government thinking. We can look forward to weeks, and months, of Tory waffle and evasions before further agreement is possible with the EU.
Labour’s response – tailing the Tories and waiting
As the tension has increased inside the six counties, so the tendency of the Labour leadership has been to try cautious differentiation from the Tories, always failing to be clear in opposition. This method of parallel lines was most explicitly stated by Keir Starmer on Friday 10th July. He was asked what his position would be in the event of a referendum on Irish unity. He replied that, “I respect the principle that the decision, in the end, is for the people on the island of Ireland.” But added: “I personally, as leader of the Labour Party, believe in the United Kingdom strongly, and would want to make the case for a United Kingdom”. It will be hardly a shock that his sympathies lie with Ulster unionism, rather than the Irish nation.
On the same visit to Ireland he demonstrated the routine arrogance which British politicians regularly offer the Irish people. He suggested in an interview with the Irish Times that Anglo-Irish relations are at an “all-time low”, a suggestion repeated by Louise Haigh, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in her response to the government’s presentation of the document to Parliament on July 21st.
This speaks volumes about Labour’s stance. Bad as Anglo-Irish relations are at the moment, they are hardly in the same universe as the period after the 1798 rising; the 1845-49 great starvation; the War of Independence from 1919-21; or in the period of renewed British military intervention from 1969 to the Peace Process. So often, British politicians narrow the scope of Anglo-Irish relations to some internal measure of their own career.
That routine, and stupid, hyperbole was grim. But Starmer went on to dismiss the issue of a border poll under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. “I think it is not in sight, frankly, and the obvious priority at the moment, particularly coming out of the pandemic, is the economy, health and education and longer term issues.” For Starmer the decisive audience is the unionist community in both Ireland and Britain. Inevitably, British chauvinism seeps through such a stance, with the assumption that the Irish people cannot manage both reunification and economic recovery. The growing movement for a border poll might suggest Starmer is out of touch. Yet surely this is not oversight, but a choice to oppose the authorisation of a border poll in the forseeable future.
In this context, it is inevitable that Labour’s response to the Tories attack on the Protocol has been completely vapid. In both the Commons and Lords debates one searches in vain for a clear expression of opposition to the government. Only former Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Tony Lloyd made a defence of the Protocol when he said: “The Secretary of State knows as well as I do that the bulk of commerce and industry in Northern Ireland is getting on with making the Protocol work …Does he not recognise that public diplomacy and unilateralism may please his Back Benchers, but it is dangerous in the context of Northern Ireland”.
A depressingly more usual response was offered by Baroness Chapman for the Shadow Cabinet in the Lords debate. The sharpest edge appeared to be the failure of the British government to stand by its recently negotiated agreement. She said: “Is there anything less British than forging an agreement but never having any intention of making it work?”. In Starmer’s Labour those medals for patriotism must always be worn. This reduces Labour’s perspective to national self-congratulation and amnesia.
The rest of the world has a wealth of experience of British government deception, guile and dishonesty. Perfidious Albion is more of an historical fact than “fair play”. Perhaps Chapman hasn’t heard the old joke about the sun not setting on the British empire because even God didn’t trust the British in the dark? She’s unlikely to be familiar with the popular saying in Persian, “Behind the curtain there’s always an Englishman” – a reflection of over two hundred years of brutal intervention and dishonesty by successive British governments in Iran. Too remote for someone tightly wrapped in the union jack? Then how about the dishonesty of the last Labour government in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed at forty-five minutes notice? That lie dragged Britain into the horror inflicted upon the Iraqi people, in the first great social catastrophe of the Twenty-First Century.
What remains necessary for Labour is a complete disavowal of the Tory government proposals to overturn and renegotiate the Protocol. It is not much to ask for the people of Ireland, north and south.
1. “Northern Ireland Protocol: the way forward”, July 2021, CP502
2. ibid, p.13
3. ibid, p.11
4. ibid, p.12
5. ibid, ps. 11-12
6. ibid, ps. 13-14
7. Belfast Newsletter, 10th July 2021
8. LucidTalk “Tracker” Poll Project, May 2021
9. The Times, 23rd July 2021
10. “Northern Ireland Protocol: the way forward”, p.13
11. ibid, p.14
12. “Testing the Temperature II”, David Phinnemore et al. Queens University
13. “Northern Ireland Protocol: the way forward”, p.13
14. ibid, p.14