Northern Ireland, the Protocol and our bumpy ride on the vagaries of market regulations…

It’s been a mad few weeks. As Taoiseach Micheál Martin has noted in an interview with the BBC’s Fergal Keane yesterday, that ramping up has not just come from within unionism…

“I worry about the post-Brexit noise from EU member states towards Britain and vice versa. I would tell one or two of them that they need to cool it, dial it down.

“This isn’t an ongoing battle between the UK and some of the bigger beasts of Europe. Let’s move away from that. They need to cool it. We’ll be collateral damage in all of that.

“Everybody needs to cool it a bit.” [Emphasis added]

UUP leader Steve Aiken noted on Frank Mitchell’s U105 programme that concern is not all about consumer trade routes: some small companies may go out of business because they cannot access specialist products.

However cooling things down at this stage won’t, of course, fix anything. Indeed there’s no indication anything can be fixed at all. Now we see the protocol comes with a cost, there’s no agreement on what the problem is, let alone a solution.

That’s largely because the two parties to this dispute see the primary matter in very different terms. For the British this is and always has been a matter of politics. On his early visits to Dublin as Foreign Secretary Johnson made this much clear.

At its core is a clash of two very different ideas on the meaning of risk. The Commission is taking the view that it must be eliminated via the use of a fixed set of rules, it gives the impression that it’s all acquis communautaire and no politics.

Although Article 16 was rolled back once the Taoiseach got in touch, it shows the EU has teeth and is not afraid to use it. In a case of overreach, the procedures were not followed (like asking the Irish government first). And so they had to climb down.

But we are a very long way from Kansas. Northern Ireland is a small regional limb in a huge national distribution system, and a lot of suppliers who do not export and have no capacity to handle the extra paperwork now being demanded.

Remember that a container can hold up to 2500 individual goods at a time, so continuing to define risk broadly will make huge demands on the new regulatory system.

The joint EU/UK committee met yesterday. It will spend much of this year wrangling over which products are determined to be a risk to the single market and which go on an exemption list. Processed meat should be decided by July 1st.

Medicines will be decided by the end of the year. Until then, according to the EU, almost anything can be deemed as a risk (whether or not it is). The Protocol effect is set to tighten during the year as businesses decide whether to continue.

Where the new cost of bringing goods in from Britain cannot be passed onto the consumer, they will have to be re-sourced in or via the Republic somewhere within the wider European Union. Some GB retailers may even pull out.

So some costs will rise and it is possible others may fall. This is a messy and protracted process. But then so has the whole Brexit process been for most of the last four or five years. And like Brexit, whatever comes out the other end will be forever.

Perhaps there is scope for what the DUP want, which is some form of mutual recognition of standards between the EU and the UK. Having ruled any such solution out during what were effectively land border negotiations, I’m not sure that will fly.

What it isn’t, is the end of the Universe (no more than Brexit). There will be life after the Protocol in the same way as there will be life after Brexit. Anyone looking to the British Prime Minister to rescue the matter, should take a look at his record.

Photo by 2427999 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA