The Northern Ireland Protocol is in Tatters

Photograph Source: Sinn Féin – Protest at Boris Johnson visit – CC BY 2.0

The recent UK midterm elections delivered a historic verdict in the north of Ireland when Sinn Féin, standing for a reunited Ireland, emerged as the largest party.

Sinn Féin topped the first-preference vote with 29%, and won 27 seats, enabling its deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, to become the north of Ireland’s first minister-designate.

O’Neill is the first nationalist to hold this position in a momentous blow to Protestant-oriented Unionism.

The Democratic Unionist party (DUP), the largest of the Unionist parties won 25 seats.

The cross-community Alliance Party won 13 seats, becoming the third-largest party in an election for the first time.

The DUP, much chagrined at its loss of hegemony in Northern Ireland politics, retreated in a huff by saying it will not re-enter the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive while issues with the Northern Ireland protocol remain.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which resulted in the prevailing Northern Irish political settlement, called for a “frictionless” border between the 2 parts of Ireland.

Brexit put the “frictionless” border in jeopardy, since a border now existed between the EU-member Republic of Ireland and the UK-belonging (and thus non-EU) Northern Ireland.

The anomalous status of Northern Ireland with regard to EU trade was resolved by the Northern Ireland protocol, which retained the “frictionless” border, but upheld the need for checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the latter basically being a part of the EU’s single market).

In the 2019 general election, Boris “BoJo” Johnson had a single mantra—he had an “oven-ready deal” that would “Get Brexit Done!”. It won him an 80-seat parliamentary majority.

The routinely dishonest BoJo claimed categorically that his Brexit deal would not put a border in the Irish Sea. He insisted that businesses in Northern Ireland would have unencumbered access to markets in England, Scotland and Wales, saying with typical bombast that the Irish Sea trade border would exist “over my dead body”.

However, BoJo, in his haste to show he could “get Brexit done”, signed an agreement with the EU, binding in international law, which required the Irish Sea border to be there.

In so doing BoJo conned the DUP, which is renowned historically for its inflexibility when it came to safeguarding what it perceives to be Unionist interests.

BoJo also duped the EU into thinking he could be trusted when he signed a treaty enshrining Northern Ireland’s special status with regard to the EU— a status he clearly had no intention of adhering to.

The DUP, having lost its majority in the assembly, decided to take a gamble by calling BoJo’s bluff— telling BoJo that unless he scrapped unilaterally the part of the Northern Ireland protocol which requires trade barriers to exist between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the DUP would not enter into any power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Féin, thereby scuppering the Good Friday Agreement.

The foreign secretary Liz Truss, who has ambitions to succeed BoJo and is branding herself as a “Margaret Thatcher MK 2”, has taken the position that the UK has no choice but to act unilaterally if the EU did not accede to the UK’s demands to abolish the checks on goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

BoJo supported Truss at first, but shifted his position later in typical fashion. Renowned for having no settled principles on anything (except his own self-interest)— BoJo was after all anti-Brexit when he was mayor of London, BoJo flew to Belfast on Monday to meet with the north of Ireland’s political leaders.

BoJo took a less strident tone than his foreign secretary, but ended-up pleasing no one.

Sinn Féin’s president Mary Lou McDonald accused BoJo of intolerable and timewasting tactics where the protocol is concerned.

McDonald said BoJo was placating the DUP and that he gave “no straight answers” during their meeting, saying: “The British government is in a game of brinkmanship with the European institutions, indulging a section of political unionism which believes it can frustrate and hold society to ransom”.

The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said after meeting BoJo: “We cannot have power-sharing unless there is a consensus. That consensus doesn’t exist”.

“Consensus” for the DUP involves ditching the part of the protocol which requires a trade border to exist between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and since Sinn Féin is opposed to this, no return to power-sharing is on the horizon, and BoJo left the meetings empty-handed, with the ball back in his court. The only thing that would be acceptable to the DUP is precisely what Sinn Féin opposes.

BoJo said more details regarding the protocol would be released “in the coming days”, and is widely expected to scrap unilaterally key parts of the protocol, daring the EU to give him what he wants or else.

After his meetings with the Northern Irish leaders, BoJo typically wanted to have his cake and eat it. He dismissed the idea that his proposed legislation, giving his government the right to ignore key parts of the protocol, could start a trade war with the EU, saying: “What we’re doing is sticking up for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and what we are doing it trying to protect and preserve the government of Northern Ireland”.

It is hard to see the EU sitting back and allowing the UK to get away with breaking an international treaty it had signed in order to maintain a “frictionless” border between the 2 parts of Ireland, and by so doing, ensuring that a single market exists between the north and the south of Ireland.

The EU fears a “slippery slope”. Its members have trading relations with non-EU countries, of course, and allowing the UK to break agreed-upon rules for the institution of a single market could set a precedent for other countries demanding a similar leeway in their trading relations with EU members.

Meanwhile, a delegation of powerful US Congressional representatives, including the head of the ways and means committee, Richard Neal, is expected to arrive in London in the coming days, reflecting the White House’s concern about escalating tensions over the protocol.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.