Time was when prime ministers visited somewhere they used it as the backdrop to make a substantial speech about where they stood on the policy or move things along. Think back to Tony Blair’s “acts of completion”. Can you imagine Boris Johnson submitting himself to questions about his post Brexit and pro Union strategies? Nowadays it’s enough for Johnson to turn up for a box ticking exercise, high viz vested or in a white coat, elbows bumping, for a few video pictures just to say he’s been here and you’re not forgotten. Yesterday will be a fleeting memory by tomorrow. The main pictures were apparently shot by a Downing St camera operator in antiseptic backgrounds that could have been anywhere. There was not even a joint interview with Arlene Foster the only half of the joint leadership that favoured him with her presence.. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill’s grand refusal to meet the prime minister was surely a mistake. She could have put her pointed criticisms to his face ( whatever they are; he seems to be doing quite a bit of her work for her).
Most commentators rated it purely as a gesture to placate angry unionists crying betrayal or at least in support of the Union. But behind the optics Johnson bumbled out an important message: While he recognises the strength of her case, he will not adopt Arlene Foster’s solution: to scrap the protocol
“The deal could only work and protect the peace process if it helped both sides of the political divide…There has got to be a balance and symmetry, we want to ensure that the protocol upholds the wishes of both communities and has the consent of both. There has got to be east-west consent to what is going on, as well as north-south. We want to make sure that is built into that.”
Instead he defended the decision to suspend parts of the protocol as “lawful, technical measures” that would “build up confidence” that east-west trade would not be damaged by Northern Ireland’s new status under the withdrawal agreement.
“We think it is lawful, indeed we think it is right, in view of the impact on the peace process and the Good Friday agreement and the need to have consent from both communities.”
The bland confidence that they will get what they want for themselves on the protocol and on the much wider front on trade in services, seems to go against reason, most recently expressed by a hurt and frustrated Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister in an interview with the Times. He protested:
We were finding agreed compromises on both sides but for whatever reason the British government has now decided that they can’t wait and they needed to announce unilaterally changes to the implementation of the protocol.”
We invested a lot of time and political capital in advocating what the British government was looking for in Brussels, explaining why the politics of Northern Ireland is complex and divided and needs to be addressed through pragmatism and flexibility. So when the British government moves ahead on its own it undermines our credibility. I think this is very damaging.”
But Coveney won’t criticise Johnson head on: “In some ways Boris Johnson has done quite a skilful job in the context of responding to the pressures coming from more extreme perspectives — people like Nigel Farage, they have now largely become peripheral figures. The Tories are a big divided party and the relationship with the Unionist party is also complex in Northern Ireland but that is why we have agreements struck following years of negotiation. It’s why we had the withdrawal agreement, the protocol, an agreement on implementation of the protocol to try to get the balance right.”
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has made a half apology for his bullish claims of no border in the Irish Sea that reached communist East German levels of denial and may have even violated the ministerial code on truth telling. But he remains eerily optimistic in an interview with Sam McBride in the Newsletter.
(Lewis) presents grace periods now not being for industry to adapt to bans and find alternative suppliers in the EU – as they once were presented – but for negotiating those bans out of existence….But ultimately, the Prime Minister has been clear – we want to ensure that the great Norfolk sausage or Melton Mowbray pork pie can be enjoyed anywhere in the UK, including Belfast.”
Does Lewis know something that we don’t? It would be great if he did but I doubt it.
The advice from Denzil Davidson a former adviser to Theresa May writing in the FT is surely wise. The two governments and the EU, together with their supporting choruses of commentators should climb off their high horses and fix it.
First, British ministers must realise that they will achieve nothing without restoring trust and goodwill. Breaches of international law and commitments recently undertaken corrode both.
This is all the more regrettable given the substantial strength of the British government’s case that the protocol will not work on the ground unless it is implemented flexibly. Second, the EU and national capitals must understand that the Northern Ireland protocol is not a technical trade issue.
The UK is not seeking better market access through the back door, but to make a peace process work. The EU and its member states are now, whether they realise it or not, part owners of that peace process. That means not seeing every British proposal through the prism of leverage but rather whether it makes the protocol acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland, while protecting the Republic of Ireland’s place in the EU’s single market. It also means understanding the political sensitivities of that process. Assertions that the bloc stands with Dublin may be meant as a demonstration of solidarity with a fellow EU member state, but are perceived by unionists as a sign that Brussels stands against them.
There are some reasons to be optimistic. Northern Ireland aside, the EU-UK agreement is bedding in. There are problems: the diplomatic recognition of the EU representative to the UK, the EU’s mercantilist approach to financial services, and the British government’s failure to be candid about the consequences of the agreement it negotiated. But these are relative irritations and are not fundamental.
However, the situation in Northern Ireland could seriously deteriorate. Power-sharing is fragile. Lockdowns may have muted public reaction to the protocol’s consequences for everyday life. But destabilisation in Northern Ireland could have knock-on effects for the whole UK-EU relationship. Northern Ireland needs a political solution and the time to find one is not infinite. The point of the protocol is to protect the achievements of the peace process. This requires the UK and the EU to take a tailored, light-touch approach to the trade border.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London