The mouse didn’t roar as the House of Commons sent the Protocol Bill on its way yesterday. “Only if enacted” said an uncharacteristically strident Jeffrey Donaldson, would the DUP go back to Stormont, advancing the curious argument that the Protocol Bill would “give back to the elected representatives in Northern Ireland the power to take the decisions that they have not been able to take.”(It would give them to Westminster not Stormont).
Most MPs including the Conservatives who spoke, were first concerned about the high falutin aspects of the Bill, such as whether it broke international law. The reason for taking such drastic action was “the doctrine of necessity” advanced by the foreign secretary Liz Truss in her GCSE grade 5 standard speech. But challenged to give an example of having to jump over the high bar of necessity she ducked and waved the flag.
The reason why I am putting the Bill forward is that I am a patriot, and I am a democrat. Our No. 1 priority is protecting peace and political stability in Northern Ireland and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. (cheers and jeers).
It was frankly weird to hear the Government supporters trot out the claim as if hypnotised by David Trimble, that the Protocol had to be replaced in order to defend what they all inclusively call “the Belfast Good Friday Agreement” not realising or at any rate not accepting that they were defending only the unionist “Belfast” version and not the nationalist “Good Friday” one.
Jeffrey was confident that the Bill’s passage would be swift. Oh yes. He must have read in the paper that Boris had said so yesterday all the way from Bavaria. Hang on. Was Jeffrey really swallowing another promise from Boris, another one he can’t keep? Others like a withering Theresa May who was showing her scars, were sure the Bill would take up to year.
Necessity suggests urgency; “imminent peril” is the phrase used. There is nothing urgent about the Bill. It has not been introduced as emergency legislation. It is likely to take not weeks, but months to get through Parliament. As the former Treasury solicitor Jonathan Jones said in The House magazine,
“If the UK really did face imminent peril, you might think the government would need to deal with it more quickly than that.”
Although the Bill divided MPs, the DUP’s arguments against the EU were quite well received on both sides. I think I heard David Lammy the shadow foreign secretary agreeing that the Commission’s’ negotiating mandate should be revised. Hilary Benn the great Remainer had loads of sympathy on the detail. Maybe I’m perverse but I find the grainy stuff more interesting. This is where the solution will be found rather than in the great issues of principle.
At the heart of this is the question: how do we protect the integrity of the single market while not interfering unreasonably with goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland? That is why the protocol refers to goods “at risk”. That is the key phrase that we have to bear in mind.
. For example, on supermarket deliveries travelling from Cairnryan to Larne, to shops that are only in Northern Ireland, what exactly is the risk of those goods undermining the integrity of the single market? As far as I can see, there is none, so why should they require an export health certificate? In the 18 months for which the grace periods have been extended, can anyone point to a single example of the integrity of the single market having been undermined? I am not aware of one.
I genuinely cannot fathom why the EU is so insistent on requiring a customs code to be provided by supermarkets and others. What is it going to do with the statistics? Is it actually going to publish stats on the movement of baked beans and baby food between GB and Northern Ireland? We are aware of the other problems—seed potatoes, organic products, divergence on certain ingredients
Of course there are products where it can reasonably be argued that there is a potential risk. I wish we had spent the time talking about those products, one by one, because if there is a good case I am sure the Government will respond. While the EU says it has offered to reduce paperwork, it is important to remember that it is a reduction compared with the full application of the rules; it is an increase compared with what is currently the case because of the extension of the grace periods. That is why I have said …that the EU needs to move to make this negotiation work. Surely we can reach some agreement on SPS checks on the basis that almost all the food produced in Britain is produced to exactly the same standards as it was while we were members of the EU.
I find this very frustrating because we hear Simon Coveney say on the radio, when the idea of a green lane is put to him, “We have proposed something very similar”. Well, why cannot the two parties get on with the negotiation to make this happen?
The greatest good sense as usual was spoken by Julian Smith the lost secretary of state across the water (“Will ye no’ come back again?”). Worth carrying his words at length.
I fear that this Bill is a kind of displacement activity from the core task of doing whatever we can to negotiate a better protocol deal for Northern Ireland. I also fear that it risks creating an impression to Unionism that a black-and-white solution is available when the reality is that, once this Bill has been dragged through the Lords and the courts and after EU responses and reprisals, compromise will ultimately be needed. Our sole focus should be on how we shift the EU into a negotiation to get the changes needed.
While I do not accept that the protocol is a constitutional threat to the UK, it is clear that it creates many complex challenges.
We know that patient, quiet work can deliver. We have already seen this happen on medicines. The EU has now changed the protocol, and the Government have secured uninterrupted supplies to Northern Ireland. Not only that, but Northern Ireland’s crucial pharma sector has access to both markets. There is no reason why the medicines deal cannot be replicated across agrifood and customs if the political will is there on both sides. However, to do that we need the highest-level focus, leader to leader, with a political negotiation focused on Northern Ireland and challenging the approach the EU took over the May years.
The announcement yesterday on more joint working with France in other areas could lead to a space in which we can push forward with a crucial member state the changes needed on Northern Ireland, but it is worth bearing in mind that, from the readout of the Macron-Johnson meeting, the Northern Ireland protocol was not raised yesterday.
We also need to work out how to encourage Dublin. We need its help to get the EU to shift. Ireland should have done more to help when we needed an exit mechanism on the backstop, but we now need to get Dublin, and also the parties in Northern Ireland, to focus on a resolution. We need a new, intensive UK, Northern Ireland, Irish and EU process. That is how we will get the east-west checks resolved so there is no border down the Irish sea. That is how we will fudge issues on regulation. That is even how we might get to fix legal oversight. But we need a sustainable solution.
Finally and long overdue, the voice of sweet reason from SDLP MP Claire Hanna having to deliver a difficult but generous message standing right beside heckling DUP MPs. She needs no further comment from me.
.I understand entirely the hurt and frustration of many ordinary Unionists. They have been catastrophically misrepresented by the Democratic Unionist party, and by the Prime Minister, who insisted—[Interruption.] The DUP has been saying all those words for three, four, five years, and we ended up with the protocol.
hope that the DUP will understand—I mean this in the best possible way—that hundreds of thousands of us in Northern Ireland who do not identify as Unionists constitutionally compromise every single day; we live in a reality where the governance lines do not directly match up with our identity. We do that because it suits the majority of people, and because Northern Ireland is not a place where hard, sharp lines of sovereignty work, or where the winner can take all. It is a place where governance survives in the shades of grey, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said.
I am glad that some very plausible solutions, including on sanitary and phytosanitary arrangements and veterinary deals, are being mentioned, because for some reason, they disappeared off the agenda. We are told, “I would do anything for Northern Ireland, but I won’t do that. I won’t agree to a simple, negotiated solution that could remove 70% or 80% of checks.” There is no doubt that the protocol can be smoothed and its operation can be improved; everybody says that.
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