David Henig / Feb 2023
For historical, geographical, legal and geopolitical reasons, Northern Ireland is where Brexit must meet international realities. The only part of the UK to share a land border with the EU the openness of which is also crucial to an international treaty particularly prized by the US, this was never going to be simple. Once the UK government chose divergence, the challenge grew.
Rishi Sunak inherited a mess. Unionist opposition to deals negotiated by Boris Johnson which meant an Irish Sea Border led to devolved government being suspended. A Northern Ireland Protocol Bill intended to pressure the EU by giving the UK power to override those deals served as an antagonism leading to suspending talks on participation in Horizon science research funding among others, and was also noticed by other countries, threatening the UK’s ability to meet a trade policy milestone, of joining the 11-country CPTPP (Trans Pacific Partnership).
All of this also however implied an opportunity. Find an agreement on Northern Ireland, and watch others follow. By the end of the year, Rishi Sunak could be heading into an election year as the leader able to fix the UK and relations with the world, with business confidence in turn following. Without the mess and the incentive to find a solution, it seems quite feasible that the whole issue might have been parked quietly for another time. Northern Ireland’s own political troubles were only a small part of the incentive.
Parameters of any potential resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol row have been well known among specialists since 2021. Northern Ireland would need to substantively follow the EU single market for goods, but with various easements whether for particular products or in how goods entered from Great Britain. Local politicians and business would need to be involved in that process, and disputes should not in the first instance go to the European Court of Justice.
Unfortunately for Sunak, many in the Conservative Party do not see this. They continue to talk about the possibility of Northern Ireland following two sets of goods regulation, no entry checks, and the ECJ removed entirely. There is a continuing belief against all evidence that the EU only responds to threats and therefore the Protocol Bill must stay. Meanwhile a slightly different set of problems occupies unionists concerned about laws over which they have no say, and divergence from the UK, and separately again Northern Ireland business want a process for managing day-to-day issues of which they know there will be many.
Handling all of this was always going to be a test for an inexperienced Prime Minister opposed by a significant chunk of his own party heading up a negotiating machinery which has struggled since 2016. Many commentators including myself thought the way to make progress was to take inspiration from 1998 peace talks by seeking a process to manage conflicting goals as the outcome. However, this seems to have run foul of the Conservative Party desire to be the ones to define the Brexit rules for the whole country, which seems to rather ignore the lessons of Northern Ireland history.
With negotiations then once again being held in secret it is impossible to know what has actually happened, and why we have gone from optimism to pessimism in days. What seems plausible is that the UK having been discussing the obvious potential resolution thought it could then get the EU to accept some kind of Northern Ireland veto on divergence, without which no DUP assent, but that the EU would never agree because as per previous UK efforts it implied the Protocol could wither away. Whereas the negotiation on the local involvement should have been the first subject under discussion.
Until last week even some Sunak opponents in his party were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, one heard phrases such as “not rocking the boat for Northern Ireland”. But the mood has changed in days, as blood has been scented, in particular by former PM Boris Johnson and his supporters. Notwithstanding causing the mess, it is now suggested he is the man for the fix.
Johnson will know, as Sunak surely does, that the US put trade cooperation on the backburner because of the Protocol Bill. Both will probably know that with China having applied to join the CPTPP, members concerned about this have insisted that accession countries display their commitment to international law, which means no Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Despite regular briefings that the UK will be fine without Horizon participation, the fact this is still regularly mentioned gives away the concern.
Veteran Brexit watchers have been viewing recent talks on Northern Ireland with growing concern that they have seen this before, that the UK government is making exactly the same mistakes as previously. They then hear the optimistic briefings and wonder whether there is something they are missing, hope that might be the case even if it proves them wrong, fear that this is again part of the same pattern.
What may be missed within these feelings of déjà vu all over again is that for Sunak, failing to land a solution looks like a huge blow to his turnround plan, and in turn therefore his position. Questions are once again being raised as to whether there will be a new Prime Minister this year, further instability that the UK really doesn’t need right now.
Ultimately a Labour government would probably resolve the Protocol row by aligning the UK more closely with the EU. That is a solution but wasn’t the only one, however it would have taken creativity and an intense internal negotiation for Sunak to find this. Increasingly it appears that this has not happened, leaving a UK government once again appearing unable to get Brexit done.