BREXIT may seem the least of our concerns right now. However, the unfinished business of Northern Ireland threatens a major crisis for the Government on top of everything else it is dealing with.
The collapse in the necessary cross-community consensus for the political institutions in Belfast portends serious long-lasting problems for Downing Street.
Yet large sections of Whitehall seem to be sleepwalking towards catastrophe. The infamous Protocol which was hastily agreed ‘to get Brexit done’ is now rubbished by its own authors, including Boris Johnson. And no wonder. It is destroying the very Belfast Agreement it is said to protect. That’s because it tears up the principle of consent which is at its heart. Not a single MLA or MP of any unionist party supports the Protocol.
It trashes the East/West relationship (Strand 3 of the Belfast Agreement) by erecting barriers between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK in order to elevate and safeguard North/South relations (Strand 2). The Strand 1 arrangements for local government at Stormont are in chaos with the resignation of the First Minister leaving the Executive unable to function.
The Appeal Court in Belfast has just ruled that critical parts of the Act of Union itself are now subjugated or set aside by the Protocol, thereby demonstrating its incompatibility with Northern Ireland’s position as part of the UK.
The creation of a customs border whereby Great Britain is designated a ‘third country’ for Northern Ireland purposes, as well as regulatory borders, are anathema to those who value the Union.
In discussions with the governments of both Theresa May and Boris Johnston this was always made crystal clear, and our vote was against any such proposal whenever it arose. The Protocol’s assault on basic principles of democracy is so breathtaking as to be scarcely believable in a 21st century modern society.
Large swathes of laws are now made by a foreign institution in their interest with no final say or vote by any one elected by the people of N Ireland either at Stormont or Westminster. It is akin to taxation without representation. Meanwhile the rest of our country can make its own laws and over time there will be increasing divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, with more barriers and greater forced reliance on the EU.
All of this before we come to the trade and economic aspects with barriers erected between us and our largest source of goods and foodstuffs. Ulster is now also separated into foreign VAT and State Aid regimes. This has far-reaching implications for EU involvement in the rest of the UK as well.
As a result of repeated delays in remedying the situation and restoring Northern Ireland’s full place in the UK, the Government has allowed the issue to dominate the Assembly election in May.
That is going to make any restoration of the Executive afterwards much more difficult.
After all, what is the point of an Assembly if it cannot legislate on vast areas of its own economy but has to accept the laws made by others?
There can be no question of unionism settling back into operating under a political settlement which has been breached so flagrantly and its guarantees and safeguards so wantonly set aside.
Action will be necessary to restore Northern Ireland’s full place in the UK, its single market and customs union, with democratic control over our own laws. Temporary derogations, light touch checks, and subsidised support for business, can never be a remedy for the long-term divergence the Protocol will cause between one part of the UK and the rest.
In July last year the government recognised the grounds for unilateral action existed.
Various events, both within and without government control, have been allowed to thwart the necessary action. This is wrong and there is still time for the government to act.
Long after the Covid Inquiry reports and the war in Ukraine has moved to a different form of conflict, Downing Street will be grappling with the consequences of today’s inaction on Northern Ireland. And history shows that this will be one crisis which will take far longer to resolve.
This appeared in Briefings for Britain on March 29, 2022, and is republished by kind permission.