The Brexit agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol is an unhappy compromise. It attempts, at one and the same time, to embody the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union as well as its treaty obligation to uphold the Northern Ireland peace process. It guarantees the soft Irish land border that was devised to end the Troubles in 1998 in return for compulsory post-Brexit checks on a range of plant and food-related goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The protocol therefore attempts to fuse together two different approaches to borders and sovereignty, as well as to Ireland itself. It is not surprising that, throughout the Brexit process, these have proved hard to reconcile, first in the negotiations in 2017-18, then in the parliamentary confrontations of 2018-19. The implementation of the protocol has long been an argument simmering under the surface, waiting to erupt.
This almost happened back in September 2020 when Mr Johnson claimed the right to breach the 1998 agreement once Brexit was complete, a threat he eventually withdrew. Last month it drew closer again, when the European commission recklessly tried to block the export of Covid vaccines from the EU into the UK, in effect hardening the Irish land border. The commission was forced to back down humiliatingly.
This week the argument has been ratcheted up another more dangerous notch. The new challenge has been triggered from within Northern Ireland, when impatience with the protocol produced threats of violence at the ports of Larne and Belfast, where the workforce carrying out checks on goods was rapidly stood down. In the aftermath, the unionist parties rushed to demand the bypassing of the protocol altogether. This prompted urgent talks between London, Belfast and Brussels on Wednesday. Another meeting is expected next week.
Because it is a difficult compromise, the protocol has few enthusiastic supporters. The EU and the Irish government dislike it because they dislike Brexit itself. The UK government dislikes it because it tarnishes the dream of a clean break with Europe. Northern Ireland unionists dislike it because it puts Northern Ireland in a special category, simultaneously part of a state that has left the EU but at the same time the only part of the UK still subject to the EU’s rules on trade and hygiene. This has the potential to become an existential challenge. The surprise is that it took so long to come to a head.
The EU, the republic and the British government can all, in the end, live with the protocol. They have a shared interest in minimising implementation difficulties and dealing with them pragmatically. The UK’s call for the existing temporary “grace periods” for checks on supermarket food shipments to be extended into 2023 is ambitious, but it deserves a constructive response from the commission. The threats to east-west trade across the Irish Sea are real. A readiness is needed on all sides to solve problems practically. The UK government should lower the temperature. It must not permit its anti-EU zealot wing to hijack the issue.
The gravest danger to the protocol comes from the disarray within Northern Ireland unionist politics. The DUP has got Brexit wrong from the start. It supported leaving the EU when it should have supported remaining. It failed to adapt to Northern Ireland’s vote to stay in, foolishly overplaying its hand against Theresa May, then finding itself ignored by the opportunist Mr Johnson. Now the fear of losing support to more intransigent parties and loyalist militants has pushed the DUP into this week’s demand to scrap the protocol. If ever there was a time for calm heads and practical political cooperation, it is now.