When the UK voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union there were very few people who anticipated the extreme form of Brexit which was to be imposed on a nation that was, after all, pretty evenly divided between those in favour of leaving and those in favour of remaining in the EU. Northern Ireland voted by 56% to 44% to remain.
After the shock of the referendum result, there weren’t many remainers who anticipated that the following six years would have been so dominated by a seemingly never-ending of excruciating government incompetence. However hard we struggled first to stop Brexit from happening, then to ensure that if it happened we remained as close to the EU as possible, and finally to have a ‘People’s Vote’ on whether to approve the terms negotiated by the government, we still ended up as spectators to a horror show. Even then the tragedy has been spread over several acts, perhaps more like a Netflix drama, where after countless episodes everything is left unresolved and we’re left waiting for the next series in the hope of a resolution.
We have been unwilling spectators to the most catastrophically bad foreign policy disaster ever to beset a much troubled Britain.
A genuine attempt at a solution
Having become used to criticising everything new that comes out of Downing Street it’s easy for me to be critical. Today’s announcement is different because it does appear to be a genuine attempt to address some of the difficulties experienced in Northern Ireland. We mustn’t fall into the error of opposing it merely because it has been produced by a thoroughly discredited Conservative government.
I have always campaigned to protect the Good Friday Agreement. When there was no practical alternative being discussed, and the UK government could offer nothing other than threaten disastrous unilateral action, protecting the existing terms of the NI Protocol was essential. The whole Brexit settlement was, as we have always known, based on an enormous lie told to the people of Northern Ireland by Boris Johnson. Without that lie, and the support of the DUP (who knew full well it was a lie) Brexit would never have been ‘done’.
The changes to the current NI protocol make sense. Though most businesses and people in Northern Ireland seemed to be happy with benefitting from being in the internal markets of the EU and the UK, there were clearly some frustrations; delays and excess paperwork at their ports, the availability of some UK products and brands in the shops, the barriers to ordering goods from Amazon and eBay for example.
Not much is new
Not much announced today is news to anyone. Anything which can be done to improve the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland must be good and would probably have been implemented long ago if it were not for the lies and bellicose language from Sunak’s predecessors. Arrangements for the ‘Northern Ireland Brake’ were new to me and will be interesting to see in operation. It is, however, a bit like window dressing for the unionists. In practice, I’m pretty sure that any proposal to exercise the ‘brake’ would end up in stalemate in the NI Assembly. Commentators over the last few days seemed to suggest that there would be some form of NI involvement in the workings of the European Court of Justice but I didn’t hear mention of this at the press conference. Ursula von der Leyen indicated that the role of the ECJ would continue to have jurisdiction as before. Perhaps there will be clarification in the detailed Information which will follow.
The touchstone of any changes in Northern Ireland must be peace. Hopefully the changes outlined today will help that cause.
Encouraging although underwhelming
Over the last twenty-four hours I was encouraged by all the noises from Downing Street and Berlaymont and took it for granted that an agreement would be reached dealing with the nuts and bolts necessary to improve the arrangements in the NI protocol for the people of Northern Ireland. I sincerely hoped though that the agreement would also be a turning point: the point at which the UK switched from seeking a more and more distant relationship from Europe to a new direction in which we began the process of protecting alignment with European standards and regulations, using Northern Ireland as a launch platform.
Having just listened to the Sunak/von der Leyen press conference I’m left feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The language was friendly and conciliatory, but language means nothing. The very least we need is a statement of aims and directions. I would like to have seen Rishi Sunak speak about Horizon, Erasmus, extending the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to at least some services, perhaps making it easier for musicians and other artists to tour in each other’s territories. Horizon got a brief mention from von de Leyen in answer to a question, but it was made clear that progress would be delayed until the ‘Windsor Framework’ was formally adopted and put into action.
The hard truth is that the UK has exited the EU and that opportunities for commerce and business, for culture and education, for young and old will never be the same until we rejoin.
Sunak wants us to think everything will be rosy. Citing the price of a pint of beer under the new arrangements was cringeworthy and sounded uncomfortably like one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ‘Brexit benefits’. He’s a fool, or perhaps just a condescending Englishman, if he thinks the Irish can be bought off by a reassurance that the price of a pint in the pub will be the same in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain.