The writer was UK chief negotiator at NI from 1997 to 2007
There could hardly be a more stark contrast in negotiating approaches than the one we have seen this week on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The EU offered a series of detailed compromises; David Frost tried to get ahead of them by moving the goalposts back as far as possible.
After consulting with companies locally, the EU attempted to resolve practical issues caused by the implementation of the protocol, ranging from sausages to medicines. Meanwhile, Frost raised the purely ideological question of the role of the European Court of Justice, a body that has caused no practical problems and is irrelevant to trade unionists’ complaints about the Irish Sea border.
The EU has also suggested ways to involve Northern Irish politicians in decisions affecting the province. This is intended to address objections regarding the lack of consent to the protocol. It would have been nice if the UK government had discovered its interest in consent earlier: the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland would have voted against Johnson’s Brexit deal, the Unionists over the protocol and the majority because of Brexit itself.
The EU’s proposal now provides the basis for a negotiated solution to the shortcomings on the shelves that have annoyed ordinary people in Northern Ireland, but it fails to address the underlying problem of identity. Hard Brexit demands that there be a border somewhere, and Unionists are right to complain that by putting it in the Irish Sea the government is undermining their British identity. But the only alternative is to put it on the island of Ireland and that would affect the identity of nationalists and republicans. No one – not even the Unionists – asked for this. The border has always been and continues to be the intractable Brexit problem.
Since the British side has not advanced any alternative suggestion, we have to assume that all the noise coming from their side is just a negotiating tactic. Invoking Article 16 is not an alternative to implementing the protocol, it is just a path to even more negotiations. Frost may be right when he says there is no dividend in talking about Brexit all the time, but I fear we are doomed to many years – probably decades – of Sisyphus negotiations with the EU. .
We’ve seen this particular movie before. The recently published diary of Michel Barnier, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, is full of examples of Frost huffing and puffing and the EU remains calm and continuous. There is a good chance it will happen again and the result will be the same. In fact, the history of the negotiations clearly shows that such stories are totally counterproductive. They simply destroy trust, come up with a worse deal than would otherwise be possible, and end up forcing an embarrassing descent on the British side.
But there is another possibility. If the UK government is truly determined to refuse to implement the Protocol and the Irish Sea border, then it risks tipping us into a full-scale trade war – and one in which the EU retaliates against the United Kingdom as a whole. Adding this disruption to the current fuel crisis, missing truck drivers, safeguarded ports and the shortage of farm workers would be an act of political suicide. I find it hard to believe that even the Johnson government would ultimately go this route.
What I really object to is the occasional vandalism of the Northern Ireland peace process, something that a previous generation of British politicians on both sides spent decades building. Dominic Cummings’ tweets reveal how little consideration Johnson had for the Good Friday deal when it came to signing the Withdrawal Agreement. The Prime Minister continues to play politics with the peace process using the DUP as a ram in negotiations with the EU. After having led DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson to the top of the hill, Johnson is now going to have to find a way to bring him back down without humiliation and without risking losing votes to his right. Donaldson will remember that Johnson left his predecessor, Arlene Foster, standing at the altar with dire consequences for his leadership.
The threat of Brexit in Northern Ireland has always been more political than that of a return to unrest. But if Donaldson implements his threat to step down from the power-sharing executive, then it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put institutions back in place for the foreseeable future. All of this is complicated by Unionist fears that Sinn Féin will win the election next year and take up the post of prime minister. This will lead to a protracted political crisis, reduced support for decentralized institutions and possibly increased support for a united Ireland.
For the sake of the peace process and the British economy, let’s hope Frost is bluffing once again.