ON Thursday, Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots instructed his officials to stop EU checks on goods coming into the province from the UK. He said he took legal advice and that he was acting lawfully. On Thursday evening we heard that the Westminster government was instructing checks to continue. On Friday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that the UK government will not interfere with Poots’s instruction.
Poots has landed a major blow on the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), designed to get the UK to enforce an EU economic border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, and ultimately to produce a slow-motion annexation of the province to Brussels control – a considerable irony given that the UK is sending troops to the Ukraine to deter Russia from annexing that nation as it did Crimea. The NIP speaks of checks on goods from the UK to NI, but NOT the type or strictness of checks – astonishingly Michael Gove acceded to the EU’s demands before Lord Frost took over negotiations with Brussels.
Lord Frost was clearly arguing the British case for a thoroughgoing revision of the NIP before resigning in December, when civil servants were briefing against his tough line and advocating a weaker British approach. The immediate context of the negotiations is the NI Assembly elections in May. Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney fears that these will become a referendum on the NIP, and so is demanding an agreement by the end of February.
Under Frost’s hand the British position has insisted that the conditions for triggering Article 16 of the NIP now exist and this is on the table; in particular Frost rejects the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over British affairs. Since his resignation Article 16 has been pushed away by the softer negotiators. The Article, legally embedded in the Protocol and legally binding on the EU, which has invoked it, and the UK, states that UK or the EU can unilaterally suspend aspects of the Protocol’s operation if it is causing ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist’. The NIP puts the squeeze on Unionists and threatens their identity, contrary to the prior and determinative Good Friday Agreement, which requires the consent of both communities – Poots’s cancelling of the Sea Border checks could hardly provide a greater statement of serious economic and societal difficulties. Why is Johnson’s government failing to do its legal duty and trigger Article 16?
The leading constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor has stated that the NIP is undemocratic and unsustainable and needs radical revision, and commentators point to growing rage by young Unionist boys in attacks on police and buses, incentivised by the NIP to create societal crises.
Under the headline ‘Triggering Article 16 is hardly the nuclear option’, Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote in the Telegraph: ‘Insecurity has been exacerbated by a National Audit Office report into Brexit that shows exports from the Republic to Northern Ireland jumping by 47 per cent since the Protocol was implemented, while trade the other way rose by 61 per cent. In the view of Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, the most hardline of the four unionist parties, “That is a manifestation of the building of the all-Ireland economy . . . a vehicle to deliver an all-Ireland politically.” The EU, he said, “built itself” – through economic union. “It’s the same strategy to try and deliver a united Ireland – to build an economic union on the island of Ireland and from that it’s a short step to political union”.
‘Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP said that the EU “ought to recognise that the protocol and its Irish Sea border is causing economic harm and undermining stability in Northern Ireland”. He’s right. Article 16 is a mechanism to be used if the treaty isn’t working, which it clearly isn’t – and nor will it until the EU accepts that instead of defending the status quo they are damaging it by further alienating the Northern Irish people. The real “nuclear option” would be persisting with this present state of affairs.’
Lord Frost’s post-resignation interview with the Telegraph’s Liam Halligan made it clear that he thought the EU was negotiating in bad faith, that the UK civil service was determined to undo any Brexit other than Mrs May’s Brexit in name only, and considers it ‘quite shocking’ how Brussels has used Northern Ireland’s still-fragile peace as bargaining chip when negotiating the UK’s EU withdrawal. Under the present NIP the UK has to request EU authorisation for Covid support loans to Northern Ireland, which, under the Protocol, must be cleared by Brussels. The NIP does in effect put NI under the regulation of Brussels – why does Johnson ignore all this catastrophic surrender of sovereignty? Perhaps he is happy to see NI annexed; that thesis does fit the evidence. He is treating the Unionists as Chamberlain treated the Sudetenland, as if dispensable.
A very nasty judicial cancer is eating into the policing of the province as revealed by Freedom of Information requests. Basically the IRA is no longer regarded as a terrorist organisation, while the UDF is. How is that for equality under the Good Friday Agreement? This is a form of corruption at the heart of law and order in NI. It helps explain the appalling asymmetry of the authorities in hounding soldiers while exculpating IRA killers, accepted by the Ministry of Defence and PM Johnson, but condemned in the Commons by Johnny Mercer MP. There are also moves afoot by the UK to integrate education into the Irish system. The government shows all the signs of handing over NI to the EU and to a united Ireland, deviously, with the application of endless lies and assurances, and now with the acceptance of corrupt mafia-type policing.
My reading of HMG’s intentions on the NIP is pessimistic: Johnson has been lying all along, he never intended a full clear Brexit, his threats of a WTO exit were bogus and likewise his claims to trigger Article 16 are clearly totally false, as we now know are most of his statements to the public. He and his subversive civil servants are pushing Brexit freedoms back; even the Financial Times is calling for government to use its new opportunities while Sunak is clearly now a Treasury puppet in favour of May’s Brino. Allister Heath’s Telegraph headline sums it up: ‘Boris’s betrayal of his revolutionary Brexit mandate is now almost total’. I fear greatly for the Unionists of NI, totally betrayed by Johnson. His recklessness in appeasing Brussels with the NIP is causing the fragile NI peace to unravel fast. Blood will be on their hands.