When Senator Joe Biden became American President by beating incumbent Donald Trump, his victory was welcomed by many; not just in America. The post-election behaviour of the defeated Trump served only to reinforce the image of a new President offering a different and less disruptive style of politics; with decision-making based on ethical resolve and a freshly defined global role for the USA in promoting conciliation and collaborative problem-solving.
The debacle of the exit from Afghanistan, however justified by a need to end a lengthy and costly war in lives and money, with full repercussions still to unfold, have tilted the halo sideways. The imagery of a President with a safe pair of hands is somewhat tarnished. The optics of Americans using whips and ropes to control asylum seekers are a clear indication that he has numerous issues to address and solve internally.
Those with family and close friends living in the USA will know this first-hand; it is a society with deep divisions and challenging social and economic issues adding to historical tensions.
In addressing these, the President will need allies on Capitol Hill. Is this need to retain the support of an Irish Caucus, a reason for his narrow policy position on the NI Protocol?
Surely, he is not bewitched by John Ford’s view of Ireland in ‘The Quiet Man or the Riverdance syndrome’ of many Irish-Americans; or those commodified political narratives that have all the credibility of speeches at a Noraid fund-raising event?
With millions of Americans not so exercised by Brexit, is it more likely perhaps a fundamental mis-reading of the dynamic of Northern Ireland politics? Is too much cognisance being afforded to politicians, North and South of the Irish border, for whom the NI Protocol serves as an advocacy platform for an Irish nationalist/republican agenda, with the establishment of an All-Ireland economy as a key driver?
What gain is there in pandering to their latent desire to erase consensual and collaborative decision-making?
The problem is that a pro-Union and political Unionist Constituency, whose support for the Good Friday Agreement is founded on the principle of consent, are not prepared to be rendered as expendable as US interpreters in Afghanistan, regardless of different approaches to resolving the problems of the NI Protocol.
There are those, not desirous of a ‘crash and burn’ strategy to devolution who want to see a pragmatic solution. They see potential in an amended and workable Protocol for increased prosperity, employment and well-being, of making Northern Ireland work for all; but it becomes clearer each day that a deeply flawed Protocol threatening instability and enforcing a rigged, as opposed to a single, market on the island of Ireland is not working. With grace periods eventually running out of road, compromise is needed.
The President would do better to become the measured voice for reason that his election promised. The advice of Vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič when speaking in Belfast recently ‘to dial down the rhetoric’ is sound for all.
Failure to mitigate will eventually push Unionism to a default position of wanting to see the NI Protocol torn up and an opportunity will be lost for transformation and reconciliation, as much as trade. There will be no political gain for anyone in the event of such a scenario. More than goods will be at risk.
If a one-sided approach to producing the Good Friday Agreement had been in place, it would never have seen the light of day. The President commends the Agreement and America’s role in its being achieved but an inclusive process was crucial.
Brexit may have led to the Protocol but it is the latter that is the immediate problem.
The EU has already had to shelve the use of Article 16 and make changes to ensure the delivery of medicines to Northern Ireland. The need for movement on the Protocol is evidenced in its own decision-making.
The Foreword to the Command Paper: The Northern Ireland Protocol-The Way Forward points to its impact economically, politically, socially and commercially. The same document later states how:
‘it [the Protocol] stressed respect for the Good Friday Agreement’s institutional framework in particular its three-stranded approach’: devolution and power sharing; North-South cooperation; and East-West cooperation…… equal, interlocking and interdependent strands which must be properly held in balance- both for reasons of economic prosperity but also to ensure full respect and equal treatment for the identity and aspiration of all.’
The Paper goes on at some length to explain the difficulties flowing from the purist application of the Protocol and:
‘…the scale of the new requirements faced by traders. Businesses of all sizes have faced new requirements for customs declarations whether goods are staying in Northern Ireland or not.
Those moving agri-food goods have faced additional burdens in securing multiple health certificates for each of the thousands of items making up consignments, even when they are destined for sale on shelves in Northern Ireland. …. authorities in Northern Ireland have conducted more than 40,000 documentary checks and 3,000 physical checks on agri-food goods arriving in Northern Ireland.
Decisions are being made on more than 300 entry documents for products of animal origin every day. The Northern Ireland Executive has estimated that from January to March this year, the volume of checks represented approximately 20% of the EU total, and more than any single EU Member State – despite Northern Ireland’s population of 1.8 million people being 0.5% of that of the EU as a whole. 20. Supply chains have been disrupted and costs increased, with staff redeployed…’
Some businesses are gaining from increased trade North-South and that is to be welcomed but this is happening at a cost to East-West trade; and as a result of the UK’s internal market being undermined, businesses are coerced by circumstances to switch suppliers. Not quite the special case promised!
Surely the bottom line is that the UK and the EU need to trade with each other as collaboratively as possible with such feeding into other areas for co-operation. Maybe this is where it should have started; it is clearly where both jurisdictions need to end up.
President Biden can, if he so desires, play a productive role and reduce the intensity of current Protocol politics. Engagement with those experiencing the difficulties from the NI Protocol would provide a more rounded view in Washington.
The advice of the EU Vice-president’s literary referencing at Queen’s University, when recommending face to face conversation, merits repetition:
“The best research you can do is talk to people.” – Terry Pratchett.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.