In the early hours of 8 December 2017, a bleary-eyed Theresa May shook hands with a sleepy Jean-Claude Juncker on an interim Brexit agreement, supposedly resolving the issues around Northern Ireland. That handshake has plagued the UK’s relationship with the EU ever since.
The interim agreement was supposed to allow progress in the exit negotiations to move to other issues such as trade. For a while it seemed to do so, but recriminations soon began. In June 2018, then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, was actively briefing against the so-called Northern Ireland backstop. He resigned the following month. By December 2018, then First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, said removal of the backstop ‘has been our message from the day a backstop was conceived.’
That was then. What about now? Despite agreeing to an amended Protocol and backstop as part of a revised Withdrawal Agreement in December 2019, the British government argues that the Protocol in practice is not working as it should. Rather than maintaining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and its internal market, the government believes that it is doing the reverse: threatening the province’s economic settlement within the UK.
With images of food shortages in Northern Ireland and complaints of burdensome customs paperwork, the UK government has evidence to back up its assertions. The EU for its part argued that the Protocol is a consequence of Brexit and the only solution to challenges in Northern Ireland.
But the consequences are more than economic. In May, the republican Sinn Fein party became the largest party in Stormont. For the first time since power-sharing in Northern Ireland began in 1998, there would not be a unionist politician as First Minister.
The second largest party in the May elections was the unionist DUP. But its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, stated that his party would refuse to nominate a deputy first minister, unless the Northern Ireland Protocol were replaced. The DUP blames the Protocol for endangering Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional settlement with the UK and since the Executive requires cross-community consent, there can be no government unless the DUP changes its mind.
The deadline for forming an Executive is not infinite. Unless an Executive can be formed by 28 October, further elections will be held. Political instability in a constitutionally fragile province during a cost of living crisis is not an ideal situation.
But there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Vice-President of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, has said in recent days that the pressure of the Protocol and the restrictions placed on trade could be reduced. Checks on only a few lorries a day would be required if the UK were to agree to the EU’s new plan.
It sounds almost too good to true.
The EU’s new plan would require the UK to provide the bloc with real-time data on trade movements. According to Sefcovic, checks would only take place ‘when there is reasonable suspicion of…illegal trade smuggling, illegal drugs or dangerous toys or poisoned food’.
Will the UK agree to it? Not publicly at the moment. As well as unilaterally extending grace periods, initially intended to ease the transition for Northern Ireland and Great Britain into the Protocol arrangements, the Government has a further proposal of its own. The new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in Parliament in June while she was then Foreign Secretary. This Bill would seek to unilaterally disapply those parts of the Protocol that the government believes are hampering the constitutional and trade relationships between Great Britain and Northern Ireland: customs processes, regulations, tax issues and governance.
Speaking in Parliament in her first Prime Minister’s Questions, Liz Truss re-stated her preference for a negotiated settlement but that this had to ‘to deliver all the things that we set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.’
The EU cannot countenance the UK taking unilateral action to extend grace periods and disapply parts of the Protocol and is taking legal action against the British government. Both the UK and EU have solutions they claim to be practical and logical. But neither, it seems, wants to accept the other’s solution.
Which means that uncertainty – the great enemy of investment – remains a real and present danger in Northern Ireland. The next early morning handshake to try to resolve issues in Northern Ireland is a long way off.