- EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said recently in London, the only thing he regrets about Brexit is: “the UK leaving the EU.”
Like the aristocracy of Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion”, it seems that Barnier stands above the political turmoil.
It is interesting how his words and analysis diverge from the comments of Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD; that all sides engaged in framing the different elements of the TCA and Ireland/NI Ireland Protocol “made mistakes.”
Whilst he did not go into details, the view of former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern that more attention could have been paid to the sensitivities of Unionism as proposals for dealing with the Brexit fallout for Ireland and Northern Ireland emerged, may shed some light.
Decision-makers in Dublin were well aware that decisions could assume constitutional dimensions within Northern Ireland but the priority was on protecting Irish economic and political interests.
Strong anti-Brit feelings emerged in some quarters as a backdrop with nationalism and Brussels expecting Westminster to fix the Unionists.
Whilst there was undoubtedly engagement under the radar, Unionism did not help itself by its non-attendance at the All-Ireland Dialogues, failing to use its influence at Westminster meaningfully, adopting the ERG approach to Brexit and trusting Boris Johnson MP on his entrance into Downing Street as Prime Minister.
A tragi-comedy of strategic errors defines Unionists in the final analysis as outmanoeuvred bystanders caught up in Boris Johnston’s web of deceit to get ‘Brexit done’ – after a fashion.
Whilst claiming Anglophile leanings, Michael Barnier affirmed, on legalistic and technical grounds, his commitment to protecting the Single Market, commented on the difficulties presented by the Internal Market Bill and in reference to Northern Ireland, emphasised his determination, during negotiations, to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
He also referred to an all-Ireland economy and ensuring peace in Northern Ireland by protecting the Good Friday Agreement.
His reference to an all-Ireland economy is both overheated and revealing.
Trade would be closer to reality.
When asked to comment on current talks pertaining to the Protocol, he referenced “no direct involvement” and urged the “avoidance of dramatization and a need to focus on trade.”
As speculation increases that a deal between the UK and the EU which will end the impasse over the Protocol will it reflect the advice which Barnier is offering?
It’s unfortunate that he and those who, when visiting Brussels, produced news coverage from 1972 of an attack by the IRA on a Customs Post near Newry, either did not heed or have access to this advice.
His latest remarks indicate, when addressing the special case of Ireland an opportunity to focus on the unfettered trade promised and to avoid hyper-constitutionalising the negotiations was barely pursued, if at all.
If Michel Barnier feels that he has nothing to regret this would suggest only a cursory glance at the state of politics in Northern Ireland and the impact of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol.
At the time and seemingly still years afterwards, he remains aloof from the consequential effects of his stance on the Good Friday Agreement which lacked proportionality and deliberately, or otherwise, allowed itself to be unduly influenced by the micro-aggression of anti- partition political, legal and academic spokespersons in Brussels.
A particular argument, or so it seems in the light of events, was privileged.
Whilst Brexit, as concluded, and the political decision-making which flowed from it provides the context for the resulting Protocol, its terms and conditions, according to his interview, were shaped by a closed agenda agreed by all in Brussels to limit any negative or contagious consequences for the EU.
This may have been achieved but this is not true for all of Michel Barnier’s stated aims; not least protecting the Good Friday Agreement which requires a more creative, economically fluid and de-centred process in regard to future trade norm-setting, representation and legislation.
Nationalist commentators, as well as those who hold a pro-Union view, recognise the 3 strands of the GFA have been compromised with the rickety structure at Stormont rendered even more unstable.
You have to wonder if the EU actually read the Good Friday Agreement and is so, how they reasoned it was being protected:
- We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively
democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political
issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any
political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.
- We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing,
and equally legitimate, political aspirations. However, we will endeavour
to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement
within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements. We pledge
that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every
one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement. It is
accepted that all of the institutional and constitutional arrangements – an
Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North/South Ministerial Council,
implementation bodies, a British-Irish Council and a British-Irish
Intergovernmental Conference and any amendments to British Acts of
Parliament and the Constitution of Ireland – are interlocking and
interdependent and that in particular the functioning of the Assembly and
the North/South Council are so closely inter-related that the success of
each depends on that of the other.
GFA, Declaration of Support, 1998
Holistic and inclusive modelling in the context of protecting the GFA was lacking. This approach enjoyed the tacit but enthusiastic complicity of some local politicians who judged their long-term strategy and aspirations would be well-served by the stance Barnier evidences.
This is the only conclusion that can be reached when previous opponents of, in their words, the monopoly capitalism of the EU, rushed to embrace the Brussels line and took deliberate actions to minimise discourse.
The response was predictable, yet avoidable.
The UK Government was equally culpable in failing to see or ignoring this.
If anyone, including Michel Barnier is surprised by the recent Lucidtalk polling in respect to diminishing support within broad Unionism for the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, they haven’t been paying attention.
It has been evident for some time that Unionist attitudes towards the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol have been hardening.
This development has clearly become inextricably linked to the Agreement it is claimed to be designed to protect with the Protocol producing conflicted perspectives with regard to its impact.
As a result, down- pressing by parties on the constitutional question has limited the range for social and economic transformation and entrenched politics on narrow ground.
The only interpretation of recent polling indicates that a sizeable swathe of Unionism feels itself a victim of politicised marginality as reflected in discussions and decision-making pertaining to the Protocol and any possible changes to its content.
Both the Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement are now viewed through a deficit lens.
In regard to this, the stance of US President Biden, decision-makers in Brussels and critics like the grandstanding Simon Hoare, MP and Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, evidence a paucity of understanding, balance and openness that simply annoys.
It seems they are more interested in building blame strategies rather than addressing concerns and in terms, not tabled hitherto, belatedly favour limiting the influence of one party to stall the process.
That this should now focus on those who designate as Unionist represents a risky step into the hidden patterns of the history and politics of the people caught up in the impasse.
Feeling belittled and tired of being ‘talked at’ raises the stakes for many in the unionist constituency unconnected to a DUP partially to blame for a Protocol locked into polarised debate.
The words of Michel Barnier provide a further window into why this has come about.
His description of Ireland as a unique economic zone betrays a distorted prism through which to define economic differences in taxation, financial governance and currency within the two jurisdictions.
It exists only in his imagination.
In describing the EU as not just about economy but peace, people and a ‘feeling’ of being members of a community beyond national borders, his commitment to a shared European consensual ideal and collaborative project is clear.
However, he reveals no similar understanding that those in Northern Ireland who are pro-Union identify with the United Kingdom in the same way.
They have strong familial, economic, historical and cultural relationships and affinity with the United Kingdom which pre-date post -World War Two European co-operation.
Under the Protocol, provision for a sea border, shifts in trade which see a growth in brands like Eurospar, disruption to supply chains, Spar labels replacing hitherto available items in stores like Sainsbury’s, costly provision to smooth trade and customs declarations on Christmas presents posted within the UK send out a signal, not just of divergence, but convergence with Northern Ireland as staging post for incremental EU economic and legislative hegemony; lacking in representation or limitation.
All of this is happening within grace periods wherein the EU and Westminster have been dealing with the issues by not dealing with them.
In spite of speculation, future direction remains unclear until the details of any solution to the Protocol impasse, now being trailed, is revealed.
How will political Unionism respond?
Not for the first time the DUP having led its constituency to the top of a hill must find
an honourable descent.
If only it had been the high moral ground.
The DUP, looking over its shoulder at the TUV with a desire to once again become the biggest party, is not the only show in town.
There is palpable exasperation within a civic unionism uncomfortably aligned with dogmatic political unionism in regard to the Protocol.
Unionist leadership which is not prepared to facilitate the passage of an Organ Donor Bill has morphed into a caricature of itself; is too easily persuaded to lower democratic standards and content to lead its constituency back to the trenches.
Oblivious to damaging Strand One of the GFA where the principle of consent is best protected whilst claiming that the principle is weakened by the Protocol, it is deepening the disillusionment with the political process that Sinn Féin nurtured during the previous mandate.
In so doing, it betrays a preference for making Northern Ireland work only for a certain brand of failed historical Unionism; a stance not shared by others who value links with the rest of the UK and wish Northern Ireland to function as an inclusive and prosperous society for all under the GFA.
It drinks the poison hoping the other will die.
It has been doing so since the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006.
It is a situation which Unionism’s political leadership will need to address if it is to re-connect with the now abandoned consensual values Unionism signed up to in 1998.
The deadlock in which it is currently engaged has not been pre-ordained and all shades of political unionism to a greater of lesser extent have been a contributing factor.
There has been a damaging over-confidence in its own limited strategic expertise. Much like the indulgent and calculated folly of Boris Johnston’s Government.
The over-engineered structure that is the Ireland/NI Protocol has had many who have contributed to its creation. A product of mistakes and design with future tension built in, it cannot be the best that diplomacy and consensual decision-making has to offer.
Reality should no longer be blurred by denial and we have to hope that EU/UK negotiators in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland have managed to establish solution-based touchpoints with greater bandwidth on trade, democratic deficit and the restoration of confidence in and commitment to the Good Friday Agreement in all its totality.
Probably best, as Michel Barnier suggests, not to over-dramatize until all is revealed.
Meantime, there is sound advice in the Cambodian proverb:
‘It takes a spider to repair its own web.’
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.