Will the promise of light touch, low regulation for the border in the Irish Sea at our ports be fulfilled?

Larne Harbour

If we have to have a border in the Irish Sea it would be great to keep it cheap and simple. That’s the powerful appeal of the British “Attitude to the Northern Ireland Protocol” available here in full. It contrasts with all the  complex thicket of  process in the EU version supported by a chorus of Europhiles.  After all the UK government should know; they will implement it not the EU. It isn’t at all clear how the EU can challenge them without pulling the whole house down. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was upbeat in the Commons yesterday.

There will not be any customs infrastructure and there will not, save in the specific example of agrifoods and products of animal origin…..  It will be the case that we will implement these principles in a way that has the lightest possible touch, so that Northern Ireland’s businesses—wrestling with covid-19—have the brightest possible future..

“The lightest possible touch” promises Gove. Do we believe him? The most artful of cabinet spinmeisters has form. Already there was a retreat from Boris Johnson’s opening shot. Sky News’s David Blevins neatly sets out spin from reality in counterpoint.

During a visit to Northern Ireland last November, a businessman asked Boris Johnson if he could tell his staff they “will not be filling in any customs declarations for goods leaving Northern Ireland to go to Great Britain?”

“You can,” replied Mr Johnson adding: “If somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the prime minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.”

There won’t be checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but there will be “some new administrative processes” on products coming in the opposite direction.

There won’t be tariffs on products entering Northern Ireland, but tariffs “should be charged if goods are destined for sale in Ireland or the EU single marker more broadly, or if there is a genuine and substantial risk of them ending up there”.

They won’t build new checkpoints at airports and seaports but “expanded infrastructure will be needed at some of these sites for the purpose of agri-food checks and assurance”.

In other words, the prime minister is honouring the agreement he reached with his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar last October, despite his claims to the contrary.

There are differences of substance as well as spin tweets the BBC’s Europe editor Katya Adler.

UK saying no checks needed on goods travelling from N Ireland to GB under the protocol. No checks on goods from GB into N Ireland either. Those goods remain in N Ireland and are not headed for Republic of Ireland and rest of single market. EU disagrees. Thinks some kinds of control will be necessary. Worried about goods entering mkt through “back door”. UK saying it won’t add any additional customs infrastructure. This will increase tensions between the two sides about what is required under protocol. EU figures off record say this feeds into their mistrust of U.K. side in separate trade talks. Also reason EU was so insistent in request it should have office in Belfast to keep eye on how.”

Gove’s pitch was acutely angled towards assuring unionists that remaining within the EU single market was not the slippery slope to a united Ireland. Did they not have a veto on renewing the protocol?

If the workings of the protocol are viewed by the people and parties of Northern Ireland as onerous, too much, intrusive and unacceptable, they have the opportunity to vote them down in 2024. That is why it is so important that we design an approach that can continue to command consent.

This was condemned by the SDLP’s new recruit from the bowels of Whitehall, Matthew O’Toole  as it  “gleefully tees up the 2024 assembly election as a referendum on the protocol. Total disregard for the effect on a fragile society.”

But need he be so worried?  The rules prescribe that any Assembly vote to leave would be by simple majority not a cross community vote and the trend is set against any return to an overall unionist majority. Gove’s bubble was pricked by no less than Theresa May. She drily reminded him that the new “frontstop” isolates NI from GB, unlike her ill- fated backstop which bound both into the customs union.

Will he confirm that, as from 1 January 2021, Northern Ireland—that is, a part of the United Kingdom—will be required to abide by EU regulations on certain goods until at least 2024 and potentially indefinitely?

However Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson pronounced themselves  cautiously happy with Gove’s interpretation   – a shift in position which Newton Emerson regards as fundamental.

But in any struggle of the UK and EU titans would little Northern Ireland get much of a look-in?    Gove was full of assurances

Of course, we have already guaranteed, in the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, that the Northern Ireland Executive have a seat at the table in any meeting where Northern Ireland is being discussed and the Irish Government are present. Alongside that, there will be a new business engagement forum to exchange proposals, concerns and feedback from across the community on how best to maximise the free flow of trade, and we will ensure that those discussions sit at the heart of our thinking.

There are lot of tables to sit at according to our local experts  David Phinnemore, Katy Hayward and Milena Komarova who’ve  kindly come up with no less than 80 recommendations to redress Northern Ireland’s  “ democratic  deficit.”

The UK government should increase the frequency and importance of meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee (of the  UK government and the governments of S,W,  and NI).

  • The NI Executive should act on establishing a consultative forum to engage civil society representatives in (a) assessing the implementation of the Protocol, (b) drawing attention to issues of concern about the Protocol, and (c) requesting changesto the operation of the Protocol.
  • A consultative forum will be an important contribution towards the public consultation that will be required prior to the ‘democratic consent’ vote to be held by MLAs on the application of the Protocol on Northern Ireland/Ireland within four years of the end of the transition period.
  • To make best use of the fact that (a) the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) is a pre-existing body used to finding common ground and common decisions on a north/south basis and (b) it has a direct route to the Specialised Committee, the NSMC should be given a formal role to monitor the implementation and the impact of the Protocol. This should be specifically but not exclusively in relation to the maintenance of north/south cooperation (Article 11 Protocol).
  • The Joint Committee, Specialised Committee and JCWG should provide regular detailed reports on Protocol’s implementation to the NSMC, NSIPA and British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and any future NI or cross-border consultative forum.

Etc etc.. Phew! Sounds like a lot of fun for all.

 The Irish verdict from RTE’s Tony Connelly.

It’s clearly a document designed to reinforce the bond between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The UK paper on implementing the Protocol skirts as close to the rocks of EU disapproval as possible. But it may have just done enough to avoid a fresh crisis over the Irish question.

The devil will be in the detail but there was no mistaking the political emphasis.  Michael Gove couldn’t resist the most provocative of quotes for nationalists as his payoff.

… it was Margaret Thatcher who said that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley”, and that has always been my view. It is of course the case that the Belfast agreement recognises the particular history, traditions, geography and conflict that has existed in Northern Ireland, but the people of Northern Ireland have decided and voted consistently to remain part of the United Kingdom, and I celebrate that.