One of many, Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD, has talked of a ‘landing zone.’ Fine Gael Senator Emer Currie has referred to there being a solution if we can find one, or words to that effect. Hardly a confidence builder?
In Northern Ireland, recently elected MLAs, reflecting the intensity of politics in a small place, are digging themselves deeper into the rutted terrain of blame, counter blame and limited concession on ideological preferences. Arguing themselves into institutionalised confrontation.
Reports from London and Brussels paint a picture of former ‘partners’ drifting further apart.
Simon Coveney, TD is talking selectively of an erosion of peace arising from any UK unilateral departure from a treaty. There are no reported comments this time based on old newspapers from the 1970s or the unfettered trade denied to Northern Ireland but enjoyed by Ireland; and wasn’t it an Irish leader who acted unilaterally from 1932 onwards to ignore a Treaty which did not meet his republican agenda, only to trigger an ‘economic war’?
Apparently, Ireland is not that same ‘place’ anymore or is it that with the rise of Sinn Féin and an election due, it is important to face down the ‘Brit’ with patronising assurances of EU flexibility; thus far notable only in their insignificance and lack of any meaningful focus on what is not working?
“You can have your medicines at our pleasure” is not calculated to calm the gathering storm. Neglectful of its own deep-seated societal turbulence, the less than impartial Irish-fetishist American caucus has weighed in predictably.
If the Ireland/NI Protocol, to use the official title, too often ignored by politicians and lazy media commentators, were indeed an airplane in search of a landing zone, it is being buffeted mercilessly in the prevailing turbulence of non-diplomacy. Those on board seem oblivious to the fact that if it comes crashing to the ground there will be numerous casualties and we won’t need a black box to know why.
Good sense points to acknowledging that it should have been provided with a more navigable flight plan.
Have negotiations, isolated from the very obvious impact of flawed thinking, manoeuvred the Ireland/NI Protocol (IRISH PROTOCOL would be a better shorthand) to a point where it will be no longer possible to regain sufficient lift; to pull away from the gravity of standoffs and a refusal to acknowledge that it is simply not fit for purpose?
There is an alternative.
Leaders would do well to ponder the words of former MP and leader of the SDLP, MLA, Deputy First Minister and Minister for Finance and Personnel, Mark Durkan Senior. It should become required reading:
We did not reach the Good Friday Agreement by ignoring what each other was saying or simply dismissing problems or prospects that others were raising.
Currently on track for another period of political and rhetorical tug of war which, as I have suggested before, is highly uncomfortable when you are the rope, the recent suggestion of Lord Frost that the Belfast Agreement is on ‘life support’ presents as valid.
You cannot protect the Agreement if you are not in accord with it and this goes beyond unfettered trade.
Those currently mandated to govern, understandably frustrated at the course of events, seem unable to resist echo-chamber thinking and dismissive, bordering on reckless, rhetoric that leaves limited space for consensus and squeezes the life out of meaningful discourse.
All the local parties are affected as are London, Brussels, Dublin and Washington. A blame game underpinned by indulgent monologues lacking in any constructive reflection are leveraged as a long-suffering community is abandoned to the role of spectator with political relationships falling foul of a lack of rational, evidenced-based and clearly communicated analysis.
There has to be a better way; building consensus as opposed to rigidity on the application of the Ireland/NI Protocol.
The first, albeit imbued with too much fudge and constructive ambiguity, delivered a process-based agreement in 1998; the latter has brought it to the brink of extinction too often. It required thinking which saw possibilities in the intransigence of political opposition and openness to adjustment to achieve a working accommodation; a cessation of politically motivated violence to build peace.
Today, attitudes which fuelled violence are no longer characterised by the weaponry of the past but have emerged as hard-wired doctrinaire resistance to movement from the fixed point.
Added to the mix is the piecemeal annexation and administrative integration of the Northern Ireland economy facilitated by the Protocol which is bringing out the worst in those who delivered it; not least a protectionist and interventionist EU. None seem to grasp fully the reality of the problems they continue to create.
The need to re-visit and re-imagine is an imperative.
The politics of the Ireland/NI Protocol are too invested with constitutional and ideological baggage, camouflaged as disputed assertions as to its benefits and drawbacks, all of which are not fully known. With future decision-making on VAT, directives and standards within the EU to be determined, divergence cannot be assessed, only anticipated. The long-term impact on state subsidies is also for the future. All of this is grounded on the shaky premise of lack of representation from Northern Ireland.
Currently positioned in an extended grace period, it is not fully in place and therefore judgement as to its consequences remains problematic, speculative and ill-advised.
The size of the NI Economy whilst it is hoped it will grow further carries very limited risk to the EU Single Market. Yet, 20% of checks in the EU as a whole take place in regard to NI which accounts for 0.2% of trade. This is not sustainable or ethical, merely punitive.
Two years into a grace period, has any serious damage been caused to the Single Market? Most of the goods that arrive in Northern Ireland from GB are for internal consumption.
We have bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.
There is positive spin on an all-island economy but is it merely trade diversion with difficulties in supply chains causing businesses to seek alternative sources.
Former Irish Diplomat, Rory Montgomery acknowledges this and how, following Brexit, the Irish Government was concerned the withdrawal of the United Kingdom could impact on the Common Travel Area requiring Ireland to join the Schengen area. In the event, this did not materialise.
Ireland a special case?
He further comments, that the Ireland/NI Protocol is a product of Ireland’s negotiating success.
In the light of events, it is legitimate to ask why similar energy was not put into achieving the same flexibility for Northern Ireland as available to Ireland. Was Northern Ireland ‘a special case’ forfeit to a protectionist and limiting Withdrawal Agreement and fear of contagion or Ireland, having got what it needed, simply closing rank with its partners; with the three strands and the principle of consent of the Good Friday Agreement thrown out of kilter and off course by an emphasis on over-regulated decision-making and failure to address the political context in which any Ireland/ Northern Ireland Protocol would be sited.
This is a major contrast in how, in dealing with Ukraine, the EU has shown what ‘unfettered flexibility’ looks like. This has not gone unnoticed in Northern Ireland.
Westminster is not without responsibility.
Article 50 was triggered without clarity as to what kind of deal was targeted. Against the background of competing agendas in parliament, the UK was railroaded into accepting a Withdrawal Agreement wherein, having already re-affirmed the CTA, it took responsibility for policing the Single Market within its own borders and all of this prior to discussing trade.
It much too readily accepted that the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement somehow implied an’ invisible border’ on the island of Ireland and bowed to the nationalist mantra of ‘Britain’s moral culpability’ for Brexit.
Pragmatic solutions and political implications were rendered less important than ideology and ‘getting Brexit done.’
Standards are determined by what consumers are prepared to accept. That’s how markets operate. The Single Market would have been protected by distributors, consumer choice and lack of demand for goods which do meet required standards. Goods which are not marketable are unlikely to find their way into shops or businesses.
Is there then a need to treat every item as being ‘at risk’ when the vast bulk of goods coming into Northern Ireland will stay where they arrive.
The use of red and green routes or trusted traders could solve some of the emerging cost and supply issues.
If there are trust issues, could Dublin step up to the mark?
Items deemed at risk can be monitored within the Good Friday structures; protecting them rather than undermining them.
This was raised early in the discourse following Brexit.
Writing last year in Fortnight magazine, Mark Durkan, senior, comments on the possibilities and contends convincingly that the
‘under -used bandwidth of Strand Two could be used to answer some of the challenges stemming from Brexit.’
He further writes that that North South Ministerial Council could be entrusted to consider the implementation of EU policies, presumably in line with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
With almost two hundred All-Island Bodies and provision for a British-Irish Inter-Governmental Council, is there not potential for also putting in place practices to address the democratic deficit that arises from Northern Ireland’s having to adhere to EU decisions. without representation.
It would require greater buy-in from political unionism than at present.
Would discussions on these lines alongside suggestions from Lord Empey of the UUP and his party’s suggestions for the unfettered entry of goods facilitate a re-framing of the decisions pertaining to the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol around problem-solving, collaboration, consensus and functional modelling of scenarios, likely to arise.
The UK and EU have agreed to a model without testing out a prototype.
Such a process, of necessity, could involve the electorate beyond listening to over-heated discussion in television studios.
There have been too many comments from the public that reveal limited understanding of the implications for cost of living, the survival of businesses, disruption to supply chains and relationships.
The public needs facts beyond opinions and conjecture with the Protocol still disapplied.
Professor Katy Hayward has written of the value of civic engagement in enhancing democratic quality and legitimacy; as yet largely untapped in Northern Ireland.
There must be value in bringing together focus groups or civic assemblies to re-define the present impasse in terms of issue-centred evidence-gathering, targeting stability, economic opportunities, participative democracy and settling politics down to a place where the NI Assembly, with all its shortcomings, can operate.
Participants would be charged with starting from a central position of building consensus and seeking to limit movement to the extremes where our politics seem to start.
By 2024, the NI Assembly will be asked to vote on continuing Articles within the Ireland/ NI Protocol.
There is time for evidence-based modelling of the implications of the Protocol, provided grace periods can be extended and improvements for implementation made operational as they emerge; to run in parallel with the operation of the Assembly.
A focus on determining an alternative Protocol orthodoxy and how positives can be maximised to ensure that a more stable and prosperous Northern Ireland becomes the lived experience; with the balance in the inter-relationship of the Belfast Agreement restored, can diminish if not remove current constitutional polemics.
The potential for restoring the currently fraught relationships on the island of Ireland in the interests of reconciliation and normalisation, ought to be self-evident.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.