It’s strictly dancing up to the Brexit deadline. Meanwhile “the border in the Irish Sea” takes shape in Northern Ireland

Archbishops’ letter image. FT 

The  off- on- off again  dance around the final stages of Brexit negotiations is taking place against  a mounting clamour of confusion and anger over the crazy politics  including the real implications of the threatened No Deal, about which the UK government postures so insouciantly.

UK in a Changing Europe think tank says their modelling with the LSE of the impact of a no-deal Brexit suggests the total cost to the UK economy over the longer term will be 2 to 3 times as large as that implied by the Bank of England’s forecast for the impact of Covid-19. This hasn’t fully registered with the public preoccupied with Covid.

Anger such as heard in a Lords debate yesterday is concentrated on the breach of international law created by the Internal Market Bill cancelling key provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement.  Removing or finessing this obstacle is essential if a deal is to be struck.

To general surprise senior clergy not normally noted for impactful statements on public affairs crystallised the issues.  The joint letter from the four senior Anglican archbishops in these islands was a rare model of clarity and pulled no punches

[The bill] currently asks the country’s highest law-making body to equip a government minister to break international law. This has enormous moral, as well as political and legal, consequences..  . The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd have made clear that the bill’s weakening of both the principles and the effect of devolved policymaking is of constitutional significance… Moreover, if the bill is made law without consent from devolved legislatures (as will happen if it is not amended to address their concerns), this will further undermine trust and goodwill among those who govern the different parts of the United Kingdom.”

There was no hesitation here about interfering in politics. It is a moral issue. The hand of the lead signatory John McDowell Archbishop of Armagh,  can be seen in the emphasis on the Good Friday agreement

“We believe this would create a disastrous precedent. It is particularly disturbing for all of us who feel a sense of duty and responsibility to the Good Friday (Belfast) agreement..

The UK negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU to ‘protect the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions’.

“One year on, in this bill, the UK Government is not only preparing to break the protocol, but also to breach a fundamental tenet of the Agreement: namely by limiting the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland law.

“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand?”

Archbishop McDowell has form. As Bishop of Clogher last year, he twice addressed Boris Johnson in open letters on the subject of the border, first in June then in October 2019

The ground on which people build and grow in the Border region feels particularly fragile today. It is almost possible to feel the heat of the past burning the soles of our feet. So, please, in your consideration of the future of this place: tread carefully.  And with deep and genuine concern I would ask you to be very conscious of the legacy your Government will leave. 

He returned to the PM with an update almost a year ago on 29 October 2019

The Border does not just stretch from Warrenpoint in Co Down to Muff in Co Donegal. It goes through every village and town in Northern Ireland, and in some places in Belfast it is so hard that it takes the form of very high brick walls topped by razor wire… And like all borders, if it is to be managed peacefully, people on both sides of those dividing lines (visible and invisible) need to have confidence that their well-being means something to those who govern them. And to do that, it is necessary to talk to them and to get to know them.

When I wrote to you last, it was my sense that it was largely (though not wholly) the people on one side of the “borders” who were feeling a strange mixture of neglect and emboldenment. Today I have an equally strong feeling that it is largely (though not completely) people on the other side of the little “borders” who are feeling afraid.

In an LSE blog Prof Katy Hayward explains how amendments to the Internal Market Bill would affect Northern Ireland  

The government has ‘doubled down’ on equipping of government Ministers to break the law through future secondary legislation under clauses 44 and 45. Clause 47 now explicitly disapplies section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act, which requires public authorities to act in a way that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) rights

  • These amendments have the effect of shutting off routes for legal challenges to the UKIM Bill. It was never very likely that a case would be taken on the grounds of human rights, but clause 47 now closes off the possibility of a challenge to Ministers’ use of these powers on the basis of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
  • In recognition of the importance of the ECHR in Northern Ireland, Article 2 of the Protocol states: “The United Kingdom shall ensure that no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity, as set out in that part of the 1998 Agreement… results from its withdrawal from the Union”. The UK Internal Market Bill now explicitly limits the incorporation of convention rights in law and the means by which holders of these rights can bring challenges before domestic courts.
  • Even though the UK Internal Market Bill does nothing to smooth movement of goods from GB into NI and it assumes that the Protocol will be implemented, the future economic position of Northern Ireland depends on what happens to this Bill because of its significance for the UK/EU negotiations.

In a statement to MPs yesterday Michael Gove clarified nothing about the state of the overall negotiations. But at least progress of a kind has been made in the joint committee of the Ireland/NI Protocol. These ultimately depend on whether there is a Deal. But even there is one, there will be plenty of “friction” going and coming in both directions

We also discussed our work to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UK outlined the steps we are taking to implement new agri-food arrangements. We acknowledged the EU’s concerns about appropriate monitoring of implementation, and have a better understanding of their requests and the reasoning behind them..

While much remains to be resolved before the end of December, we have made substantial progress on implementation. Both sides are committed to an accelerated tempo of discussions via the Specialised Committees

Tony Connelly of RTE spells out her practicalities behind the bureaucracy

The EU is seeking to have some 15 customs + veterinary staff working alongside UK officials at NI ports to ensure the proper implementation of the NI Protocol, … In return the EU would drop an earlier request to have a physical office in Belfast.

Senior sources said Mr Gove promised an open approach to updating the EU side on the construction of Border Control Posts (BCPs), required to facilitate EU controls on live animals, goods of animal origin and food consignments entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Work also advanced on ensuring that Northern traders had the correct VAT numbers and IT system in order to be able to plug into the EU’s VAT system for goods.. It’s understood Mr Sefcovic stressed to his opposite number the importance of EU technical officials being able to monitor the work of UK officials in implementing checks and controls.. This would amount to some 15 EU staff being able to work alongside their UK counterparts at Larne, Belfast, Warrenpoint ports and Belfast Airport, and to have access to the UK’s customs and veterinary database in the process. This remains under discussion…

Both sides are thought to have discussed the questions of whether or not goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain would require exit summary declarations, and how supermarket consignments from GB to NI would be handled in terms of customs and regulatory checks… sources say both sides have looked at ways to compromise on these issues, and that engagement would intensify, especially the role of the European Commission’s customs and taxation division.

It’s  a  rocky road to Christmas along  more ways  than through Covid.