To use a well known term from political science, we seem to be in a right bugger’s muddle. Brinkmanship is the order of the day. Wobbling on the cliff edge is Liz Truss the foreign secretary, threatening to bring in legislation to allow business to disregard EU rules on GB-NI trade as early as next week. She argues that existing EU concessions would “ make things worse.”
It focuses on the fact that grace periods mean the protocol is not being fully implemented.
It says if the grace periods were replaced with the EU proposals, the checks and controls would increase, and these plans would lead to “everyday items disappearing off the shelves”.
It claims a range of food would likely be unavailable in Northern Ireland shops if it originates from outside the EU, such as Thai green curry ready meals, New Zealand Lamb and Brazilian pork.
It also claims “sending a parcel to Northern Ireland would require more than 50 fields of information for the customs declaration for one parcel”.
Abroad (not that anybody in NI notices “abroad” much unless it’s the US), a chorus of leaders has warned Johnson not do anything of the sort.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz said any unilateral move to unravel the protocol would have an effect beyond EU-UK relations. “No one should unilaterally cancel, break or in any way attack the settlement we have agreed together,” he said, speaking alongside his Belgian counterpart, Alexander De Croo, who restated EU warnings that unilateral UK action could ultimately lead to a trade war between London and Brussels. “Our message is quite clear: Don’t touch this. . . If that agreement would be revoked, then I would think that the whole system will be revoked. I would not see any other solution..”
Now the White House has added its voice, prior to a diplomatic mission headed by the Belfast born UK minister and close Johnson ally, Conor Burns, in an ambitious attempt to persuade the Administration of the strength of the British case.
If Truss proceeds, the vista opens up of a full scale trade war with the EU, the logical impact of which would be under EU rules, the erection of customs posts on the Irish land border, the ultimate anathema. These prospects are far more significant than legalistic wrangling over which side is the bigger violator of the GFA. Pressure is therefore on the Irish government to work behind the scenes to try to accommodate the practical objections to the working of the Protocol. No doubt that is what Johnson had in mind whether he voiced it or not in his reportedly tetchy exchange with the Taoiseach yesterday.
In the big picture the noises from Stormont are a sideshow. But not to be outdone by such illustrious company, Jeffrey Donaldson is raising the stakes higher by threatening to boycott the election of the new Speaker. This I’m fairly sure does not legally bar the continuation in office of ministers from the old mandate (if unlike the SDLP they are willing to serve). But it renders them unaccountable and therefore – quite probably – inoperable and rules out any form of legislation. Perhaps Donaldson will pull DUP ministers out too and heighten the crisis? If so, one of the main pillars of New Decade, New will have collapsed and we are into another bout of rule by civil servants which is thin cover for avoiding full blown direct rule.
Unless he’s a better actor than I give him credit for, Donaldson is not in league with Johnson over tactics. The British approach in the Queen’s Speech is rooted firmly in highly volatile Conservative party politics. The one minor exception is the pledge under New Decade, New Agreement to introduce legislation on Irish and Ulster Scots culture for the Executive to implement.
On the Troubles legacy the earlier proposal for an amnesty is now made conditional on suspects cooperating with truth recovery. But the threat of prosecution remains a paper tiger if the evidence is unavailable. For the likely few who might come forward, what happens if their evidence is deemed inadequate or even bogus? Who makes that decision and what happens to the evidence offered, presumably given under privilege? Is this handed over the police or the public prosecutors?
Finally a UK Bill of Rights is promised to replace the Human Rights Act. It aims to reduce judicial review of government actions, increase the role of Parliament and limit appeals to the Strasbourg Court. So far it has attracted scathing reviews. And not a word on how the replacement of the Human Rights Act would breach the GFA, an international treaty. But then Johnson doesn’t care about pesky foreigners does he? Unless he can pose as the champion of Ukraine.
The only comfort we can draw is that any of this will take yet more time. Truss’s draft Bill is facing a hard time in cabinet and in sections of the party. The last word has yet to be uttered on the legacy and human rights. Most longed for surely is some kind of coherence. At the moment that is no more apparent in Westminster than in Stormont.
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