In ‘My Secret Brexit Diary” Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier refers to Brexit as ‘La Grande Illusion’. It hardly needs translation; in meaning or perspective. Is it applicable to refer to the Ireland and Northern Ireland Protocol and the premise on which it is built in the same vein?
in 2016, the Irish Government responded quickly to confront the implications for Ireland’s continuing membership of the EU, future relations with the United Kingdom and managing any potential economic fallout for the Irish economy.
These and other issues were highlighted when the first All-Ireland Dialogue met in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham on 2nd November 2016. Opening the first Plenary Session, Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD described the situation as;
…the most significant challenge socially and economically for 50 years…
…whilst Brexit was not of Ireland’s choosing, the result had to be respected; the priorities had to be the border, Peace Process, trade and travel.
…the formation of a Brexit Committee, support for the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, close North-South co-operation and focus on an all-island impact; that it was important to hear from the whole island to capture a broad spectrum.
It sounded re-assuring for anyone from Northern Ireland with a pro-Union preference.
This was reinforced when the then leader of the Fianna Fail Opposition Micheál Martin TD stated:
…the principle of consent cannot be undermined by narrow agendas.
The Alliance delegate tabled similar counsel:
NI has a distinct political requirement. The Agri-food industry needs to be treated in N/S basis. Any solution to treat the Irish Sea as a border will have implications for the GFA and needs to be avoided…… protect aspirational and constitutional preferences.
Not all the speakers voiced the same consideration but several others like the Social Democrats urged
…the retention of sustained collaboration East/West and North/South.
The ICTU spoke of a need to uphold consent and Co-Operation Ireland counselled that:
Nationalists will feel semi-detached or Unionists will feel semi-detached depending on borders.
The current experience of unionism feeling semi-detached post the Ireland and NI Protocol, speaks for itself.
These were just some of the many problems, with, as yet, few solutions, identified by a wide range of individuals and representative bodies; each primarily concerned with how Brexit would impact on their political aspirations or economic prospects.
Sinn Fein, predictably, called for a referendum on political unification.
In a break-out session opportunity was afforded to caution against allowing negotiations to become trapped in constitutional politics. The conciliatory response when this was raised drew further re-assurance when an Official from the DFA committed to wanting to avoid this scenario.
Some days later the Sunday Times carried a report of a North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh which referred to…
…shared positions on mutual interests, practical outcomes, not branding; not presented as an All-Ireland Accord.
The mood music sounded encouraging. By the date of the second All-Ireland Dialogue the environment felt chillier for pro-Unionists.
Had the land in Dublin been mapped out for an arrangement designed above all to protect and promote Irish vested interests with the Good Friday Agreement acting as a protective shield; to ensure unfettered trade for Ireland between the UK and the EU with Northern Ireland’s markets as the collateral damage.
The history which has brought us to where we are, certainly invites the question with trade and Protocol provision between North and South favourably tilted southwards at the expense of the Internal market and historic trading patterns.
Add to this, barriers to medicine and supply chains, still unresolved, and on a personal level, relatives in Britain having to complete customs forms to send presents to family member in Northern Ireland.
Surveys quite justifiably show that within the community there are greater priorities; that within unionism there are different views as to how a Protocol realistically and consensually co-designed could be to the benefit of Northern Ireland and make it better for all.
It would be an error however to assume that this indicates endorsement for a status quo characterised by a lull in enforcement characterised by uncertainty and ‘waiting to see how the election results go in May 2022.’
Speaking in November, 2021 at the Royal Academy in Dublin, Lord Paul Bew addressing a number of issues past and present, remarked that when it comes to the Protocol and what flows from it, people [political and non-political unionists] “feel uncomfortable “and further added that:
…if there had been no Strand 3, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement.
Given his closeness to events during the seminal period leading up to Easter 1998, there can be little doubting the validity of his remarks. Interestingly, he noted:
…in 1998, Dublin avoided any reference to an ‘all-island economy’
But by 2017 during the negotiations on the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement it had emerged as a ‘project’ now developing a ‘dangerous rhetoric.’ It was referenced on several occasions by Leo Varadkar TD, successor to Enda Kenny.
Was the aim to secure ‘unfettered trade’ with the EU and the United Kingdom, through a Northern Ireland kept within the Single Market and Customs Union with Northern Irish trade shifting southwards and Irish products able to access markets through northern ports?
Was the EU about to deliver an economic ‘Hibernia irredenta’? That a resulting perception of a Strand of the Good Friday Agreement purposely side-lined, is feeding current instability at Stormont seems self-evident.
The rhetoric of an all-island economy certainly qualifies as an unnecessary and overblown assertion by political Nationalism of what presents as little more than cross-border trade.
An all-island economy would require common tax laws, currency, budget and a common economic policy-making and parliamentary process, not least on tax level incentives to FDI companies.
There is little evidence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer taking the Irish economy into account when delivering budgets. None of this is in place.
It seems safe to conclude that talk of an all-island economy reveals more of the aspirations pertaining to nationalism and what an unkind eye might see as Irish post Brexit-manoeuvring, than the world as it is.
Meantime, a feeling of Unionism feeling ‘detached’ and pushing back on Strand 3 has not gone away even with the Protocol not fully in place.
When the Second All-Ireland Dialogue met in Dublin Castle in February 2019, those attending assembled against a background of British Prime Minister Theresa May MP struggling to obtain terms within an EU Withdrawal Agreement which would get the support of Parliament and deal with the issue of ‘no border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Tanáiste Simon Coveney, TD spoke of the EU and the Irish Government wishing to be helpful but emphasised the stance that Ireland:
…will not allow Irish interests to be sacrificed.
It is not clear if Northern Ireland was included but seems unlikely from the manner in which he referenced events in the ‘North’: referring to ‘Unionist negativity’ and accusing Sinn Fein and the DUP of having turned the question into ‘a constitutional issue.’
Earlier in the morning, in what signalled a shift from earlier concerns about protecting constitutional preferences, the Alliance representative, in addition to speaking of a need to protect the GFA, claimed that the issue was ‘not a constitutional one.’
Voiced at a time when the Withdrawal Agreement, the Ireland/ Northern Ireland and the TCA had not yet been agreed, it presents as an expedient if not opportunistic attempt to wish away difficult conversations and ‘cherry-pick’ the GFA.
By this time, it seems that the EU was doing the same as it moved to take control of Brexit with the issue of a border in Ireland, in addition to the threat of violence, as useful leverage in the strategic toolkit.
An earlier option of addressing some of the ‘border implications’ technologically as suggested by the Head of the Irish Revenue, seems to have been sacrificed to other priorities; exploring solutions within the 3 strands, whilst considered, dismissed.
There may have been another dimension.
Achieving agreement on an Ireland-NI Protocol would keep the United Kingdom restricted within the EU economic eco-system as it pursued new FTAs. The other possibility is that Northern Ireland would be excluded from these, depending on the terms agreed.
Once this course was chosen, the EU with Ireland amongst its members, went into auto-pilot negotiating, or so it seems from the ‘diary.’
Further, writing in his diary’ Michel Barnier speaks fondly of Ireland and the Irish people; of former President de Gaulle and his holidays spent there. He also refers to his knowledge of Irish history although in referring to Ireland as an homogeneous territory does cast some doubt on this.
The Peace Process is clearly important for him but mention of Bloody Sunday as his sole reference to the legacy of violence, is in itself revealing as to the prism through which he viewed his remit.
In addition, he speaks of EU solidarity with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar across the member states and of not expecting anything constructive when meeting with the DUP.
It’s as if economic realism in the context of the totality of the Good Friday Agreement bowed to EU political and economic ideology and Irish interests as the EU detached itself from the consensual principles on which the Agreement is built.
Did Michel Barnier, the man of detail simply treat the Good Friday Agreement with a broad reductionist brush? If so, in the White House and the Irish caucus, he has since found willing cheerleaders for his flawed resolve.
It was clear at the time that the lack of an agreed and constructive approach to negotiation at Westminster facilitated the EU with new Prime Minister, Boris Johnston choosing the wrong path simply because he did not have the resolve to wait for a better one.
The willingness to respond to the continually emerging deficiencies within the Ireland/NI Protocol point to a growing recognition that he was not alone. The devil is always in the detail.
Those happy with the current outcome will lay responsibility at the door of Brexit. It triggered a process but those who engaged to find agreement share accountability. This is not to absolve the performance of the British negotiators or those who claimed to represent political unionism but as the Secret Brexit Diary of Michel Barnier reveals, with NO DEAL off the table and the Irish border as weapon, any EU compromises were locked into a pseudo-conspiratorial space with little wriggle room.
There are strong indications that Ireland and Irish interests were a key which kept, or were used, to keep the lock from being opened.
The implication for now is that in seeking to solve the technicalities of the Protocol, committees need to re-focus as to where they look for solutions and re-visit the Strands of the Good Friday Agreement.
It will carry the advantage of preserving what is in danger of being lost.
One ‘Grande Illusion’ is more than enough.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.