Johnson and Frost’s attitude to the Northern Ireland Protocol repeats the Tories’ worst habits in relation to Ireland

by Matthew O’Toole

This piece is part of a new book “Labour’s Reset: The Path Back to Power” released this week. Click here to download it. The book looks at the barriers for voters in picking Labour, what the party can do in opposition to tackle these issues and the type of policy platform that would attract switchers to Labour at the election

If Boris Johnson actually cared it wouldn’t be so bad. His and his government’s wilful disavowal of a treaty they signed (and trumpeted in an election campaign), their intermittent gaslighting of people and businesses in Northern Ireland – if any of it was based on sincere conviction it would be easier to stomach. The empowering of extremists representing glorified crime gangs, the naked refusal to acknowledge the plain facts of international trade.

Political actors in Northern Ireland of all shades don’t just distrust the Johnson Government and its approach to the Protocol, they – we – are disoriented by it. Since everyone has been lied to, there is now next to no reserve of trust from which UK ministers can draw as Brexit makes relationships sharper and more difficult. So, what should happen now? Part of the answer lies in remembering the lessons of the past: the importance of delivering on commitments made in good faith and avoiding the crude assertion of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland as if it were the same as Suffolk.

Conservative indifference to the consequences for the island of Ireland of English political choices is nothing new. Whatever Northern Ireland’s future constitutional arrangements, defending pluralist institutions and British-Irish relations from thuggish Tory nationalism will require an active and engaged Labour Party. That should start with delivery of the complex and imperfect commitments in the EU withdrawal agreement.

One hundred years ago, the Westminster political class was bored of Ireland. The subject had dominated Parliamentary debate on a recurring basis for at least four decades. From the perspectives of both those Liberals – and Labour – who had supported successive attempts at Home Rule, and the Tories who had opposed them, first in relation to all of Ireland and latterly for the province of Ulster, the complicated denouement of 1920 and 1921 signalled time to move on from the Irish question.

First, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 provided for the exclusion of six northern counties from any form of self-governing proto-independent state. Then after months more of fighting between republicans and the British state, by the end of 1921 a treaty providing a ‘Free State’ with dominion status in the other 26 counties was agreed between Lloyd George’s Government and Sinn Fein, which subsequently split but with the treaty itself surviving.

As Charles Townshend’s new book on partition points out, by 1921 many MPs were exasperated at the oxygen consumed by the ‘Irish question’ – and the demands of unionism very much included in that category. Then, as now, there was a striking disinclination to view said Irish question as one in which English politics and English power were implicated, or to put it more directly: one for which English politicians were in large part responsible. For better or worse, Irish issues were to be marginal in British politics (notwithstanding the fact that part of Ireland remained in the UK) for the next half century. In that sense, one of the key aims of Lloyd George’s Government – to stop talking about Ireland – was overwhelmingly delivered.

What does any of this have to do with 2021, and the question of how the UK Government – and British politics in general – approaches the implementation of another treaty, the EU withdrawal agreement and specifically the Protocol on Northern Ireland? It is to demonstrate that nothing happens in the British-Irish relationship outside the historical burden of that relationship; and that relationship is marked by asymmetry of both power and knowledge. Where London possesses the greater power – and not only over the jurisdiction where it is the sovereign power – Ireland (by which I mean the island and both historic ‘traditions’) possesses the greater memory and knowledge, of both historical fact and grievance.

From London it can sometimes seem like political memories begin in 1998, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the transmutation of British-Irish diplomatic relations into one long decorous performance of mutual affection, as with the Queen’s box office state visit to Dublin in 2011. The more useful thing to remember than how pleasant that visit was is why it was so historic in the first place – despite being in her mid-80s she had never before set foot in the South, of which she would have been head of state had she acceded to the throne three years earlier.

The Johnson Government is particularly disposed to be flippant about their obligations in Northern Ireland, and indeed their obligations to the British-Irish relationship more broadly. Despite what they may wish, these two things are intimately related. It was the softening of the British/Irish sovereignty question, in performative as well as substantive ways, which created the entire context for power sharing and the post-1998 settlement.

It is also arguable that it was this flippancy which led Johnson and his Brexit amanuensis David Frost to agree to a revised Protocol on the basis of changes from the previously agreed backstop, which they had rubbished as unacceptable in mid-2019 before Johnson entered Downing Street. Those changes amounted to increasing the potential for regulatory and legal divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland sharper, by removing the mechanism for GB-EU alignment-in-the-absence-of-something-more-permanent that the more sincerely unionist Theresa May had agreed back in 2018.

Since signing that deal, the UK Government’s conduct has involved successively denial, deflection and occasional outright deceit. The Protocol forms a large part of the withdrawal agreement on which its gigantic majority was won in December 2019. Having won such a large victory on the back of the deal, it was perhaps unsurprising that British ministers were initially keen to elide some of the more controversial parts of the Protocol – namely the potential for checks in the Irish Sea. They approached this sleight in different ways.

In the early months of 2020, Michael Gove highlighted the potential economic benefits of the Protocol (which are vast but ironically based on retaining the kind of market access exporters in Britain have lost due to Brexit). This approach was at least far superior to the irresponsibility of his former Vote Love accomplice and current Prime Minister. Boris Johnson used a General Election campaign event in Belfast (a tragicomic election time obligation for all Tory leaders given the risible vote the party achieves in Northern Ireland) to encourage businesses to rip up any new paperwork they were asked to complete as a result of his deal with the EU.

The extent to which the political and media classes are inured to Johnson’s mendacity were highlighted by this episode. It seemed almost unthinkable that a head of government would simply deny the legal requirements imposed by an international treaty he had only just signed. Ever since then, both before and after the EU’s ill-judged attempt to invoke Article 16 over vaccine supplies in January, UK government and media discourse has often been based on the remarkable proposition that the EU is solely responsible for the consequences of decisions by successive UK governments.

This was exemplified by a surreal episode of the Andrew Marr show at the end of May, conducted during Edwin Poots’s momentary leadership of the DUP. Marr allowed agriculture minister Poots – who in February unilaterally stood down port staff on the basis of his own assessment of ‘threats’, from sources he would not disclose – to make lurid claims about threats to peace without challenge. Marr then lambasted the EU Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, who was ordered to respond to Poots’ claims as if they were gospel, and of course no other representative from Northern Ireland was invited onto the programme. The truth is that the DUP, increasingly egged on by a Tory Government always spoiling for a fight with Brussels as a cheap distraction from their daily scandal, has sought to portray the outworkings of the Protocol as apocalyptic for Northern Ireland society and economy.

And of course it has been disruptive. Britain is the biggest source of goods imports for the Northern Ireland economy, and so the presence of a new customs and regulatory threshold was always going to be disruptive. Much of this has been eased by the extension of grace periods, and much of it has eased through the process of familiarisation of businesses and officials. But the idea that Northern Ireland has experienced severe shortages or mass unrest is not just exaggeration, but outright fabrication.

The street violence which erupted over Easter was a grim and chilling throwback, and the presence of the so-called Irish Sea Border was undoubtedly part of the context for the rioting, but it clearly was not the only, or even primary, motivation. Anger over the policing of a prominent IRA funeral, a release of post-lockdown energy and a longer-term sense of marginalisation in working class Protestant communities all contributed to the unrest.

It is important not to dismiss or deny the genuine sense of unionist unease and anger about the principle of the Protocol. But it is also important to keep in proportion both the scale of the anger and the actual scale of the issues created by the Protocol. In 1974 and 1985, respectively the years of the Sunningdale power-sharing initiative and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, unionists successfully mobilised tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of protesters onto the streets in anger at the constitutional implications of the aforementioned initiatives. In the 1990s, thousands protested over the Drumcree parade dispute and even the Good Friday Agreement itself. This year, even the highest profile organised protests have struggled to attract numbers beyond the low hundreds. And this despite months of intense local media focus on unionist grievance, often bordering on overexposure, and non-stop social media agitation.

Second, while many consumers and small businesses have experienced frustration at extra processes in terms of moving goods from Britain, the effects are disproportionately in specific sectors – notably the movement of plant and animal produce. This is caused by the existence of a border in what are called Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary regulations. But here is a critical point: there always was a theoretical and nascent ‘Irish Sea border’ in such regulations, for the unavoidable reason that imposing a border in plant and animal standards on a small island with an integrated ecology and agricultural sector would be logistically impossible. There are farms that straddle the border, and livestock that graze on both sides of it – presumably unaware of its existence. The all-Ireland dairy sector would be unviable in its current form if there was an SPS border disrupting the movement of the millions of tonnes of milk that between north and south every month.

And of course it is false to claim, though it is still claimed regularly, that the withdrawal agreement prioritises north-south relationships over east-west ones. The only north-south border that the Protocol prevents is one in goods, but most economic activity is in services, and Northern Ireland – like the rest of the UK – is outside the single market for services. Which is why there is a hardening border in a whole range of areas not covered by goods – from the possibility of roaming charges to the loss of the cross-border healthcare directive to the effective destruction of the all-Ireland banking sector.

The upshot of the position taken by most unionist politicians – simply remove the Protocol – is that the counterfactual, the world without the Protocol, is life and commerce as it was before Brexit. Of course isn’t and cannot be. That world is gone, as GB-based exporters, travelling musicians and supermarket logistics managers all know too well. What none of those groups have is the economic potential offered by the Protocol, which allows goods to move seamlessly from Northern Ireland into both the UK and EU single markets. And of course on top of that, people born in Northern Ireland have the permanent right to EU citizenship via the Republic. If the UK and EU can collectively agree processes to minimise the disruption to goods imports from Britain into Northern Ireland, that would be welcome – but it should also be matched by a commitment to maximise the possibilities to businesses and young people from participation in European programmes from Erasmus to the European Green Deal.

If the posturing by the Government turns out to have been a misjudged tactic for getting EU agreement to a lighter touch regime on certain goods being checked, that is one thing. The EU will legitimately point out that the most straightforward way to minimise checks – an EU-UK veterinary agreement – is one that the UK has refused to engage in anything other than the most unrealistic terms. The EU might also point out that the UK’s decision to turn the presence of an EU office in Belfast into a symbolic fight during the negotiations removed one very clear means of ensuring flexibility – by binding the EU directly into on the ground delivery of the Protocol and also allowing a physical presence for Northern Irish politicians, businesses and stakeholders to lobby and engage on relevant EU rules – was the definition of a pyrrhic victory.

If however Frost and Johnson are serious about forcing real confrontation over the implementation of a deal they signed, and which offers the Northern Ireland economy the rare opportunity (perhaps unprecedented in the century since partition) of meaningful competitive advantage, it will be a tragic and avoidable repeat of some of the worst Tory habits in relation to Ireland.

 Matthew O’Toole is a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Belfast South for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and a former journalist and civil servant

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2 Responses to “Johnson and Frost’s attitude to the Northern Ireland Protocol repeats the Tories’ worst habits in relation to Ireland”

  1. Tafia says:

    The bottom line is you are failng to accept two cast iron facts. Firstly, tNorthern Ireland is an integral part of the UK while the majority of the poopulation there wish to remain so, which they do (should they ever wish to leave, London will drop them like hot coal that fast you’ll miss it if you blink – and gladly). Secondly, The United Kingdom is no longer a member of the EU and as such, it’s international borders are recognised as such by all international bodies and the UN Charter. These are true statements – accept them and work within them.

    There is street violence every single Easter without fail. Likewise St Patricks Day, the marching season and several other key dates on both sides of the divide. That has always been the case for 200 years, every single year, without fail. You can set your watch by it. It is mostly unreported here on the mainland because frankly, it isn’t news, it doesn’t sell and the bulk of the UK populace are not interested other than to think both sides are dicks. Terrorist shootings ovccur there several times a week, but luckily it’s only the groups either carrying out rodent control by shooting each other, or shooting drug dealers for trespassing oon their turfs. (Terrorism in Northern Ireland is financed via drugs, prostitution (including trafficed people, icluding minors) and ‘franchising & licensing’ less profitable parts of organised crime such as protection. fuel smuggling, illegal taxis and bars and unlicensed gaming machines. Luckily they aren’t particulalrly gifted at that either.

    As for the Protocol, business both sides of the border has had enough of it and even the Irish government in Dublin has started moaning at Brussels about it. It was introduced purely for convenience and to play for voters on the mainland GB – the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland were an iorrelevance, particulalrly as this was a UK issue not a devolved one.

    The border is an international border and should be treated as such. The terrorists (both orange and green) are not the terrorist of old and will not be for a good couple of decades yet – they are riven with in-fighting, feuds over purity, heavily infiltrated and pure amteurishness of their operatives.

    Constant harping, whinging,crying and throwing the usual middle class tantrums is just making it a laughing stock (and rightly so). There are only two choices – put up with it or scrap it.

  2. Anne says:

    I have read this article three times. A very well written article that explains some of the historic complexities which underpins the present NI situation. I was an admirer of the late John Hume.

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