British government ‘destroying trust’ with Irish government over protocol

Former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell said the relationship between the two governments was ‘terrible’.

Former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell said trust was crucial to negotiations (Niall Carson/PA)
Former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell said trust was crucial to negotiations (Niall Carson/PA)

A former Downing Street chief of staff and architect of the Good Friday Agreement has accused the British government of destroying its trust with the Irish government over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Jonathan Powell, who worked for Tony Blair and was involved in negotiations that forged the Good Friday Agreement, said the relationship between both governments was “terrible”.

Mr Powell told the Oireachtas Good Friday Agreement committee – an Irish parliamentary committee – that the compromises made in the 1998 accord had been “upended” by the impact of Brexit.

A sign in Larne protesting against the Northern Ireland Protocol (Liam McBurney/PA)

He said trust was vital to negotiations and had been crucial in the years leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

He accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government of “casually destroying something through vandalism”, and trashing the UK’s reputation.

“We spent a decade building trust, but the current (British) government is spending its time destroying trust. It is catastrophic. The relationship is terrible but it can be restored quickly,” Mr Powell said.

“Any new British government would do its best to rebuild relationships as it is so important.”

He said the main casualty of the fallout over the Northern Ireland Protocol would be the region’s peace process.

The former British diplomat also said he was concerned it would induce a permanent political crisis that could prevent the re-establishment of the powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland.

A copy of the Good Friday Agreement (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Powell said he “fears” it will take the departure of Mr Johnson before “serious negotiations” take place between the UK and the EU.

“Boris Johnson decided to opt for a border in the Irish Sea – something Theresa May had said no British Prime Minister could live with – in order to get a (Brexit) deal,” Mr Powell told the committee.

“This option is certainly massively better than a border on the island of Ireland, which would be disastrous for the GFA (Good Friday Agreement), but it cannot be denied that it undermines the unionist sense of identity to have a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“Unfortunately for the unionists, no-one in six years of trying has been able to suggest an alternative.

“The current British government has embarked on a policy of escalation by threatening to unilaterally abrogate the NI Protocol which they themselves negotiated and signed.

“As a result, they have broken international law and undermined the UK’s international reputation, alienated our allies in North America and Europe at a moment when we need them more than ever and potentially triggered a trade war when the world economy is struggling.

Boris Johnson is accused of trashing the UK’s reputation (Dan Kitwood/PA)

“The main casualty will be the NI peace process itself. That does not mean we are inevitably destined to return to the Troubles, but rather that it is likely to result in the institutions remaining broken for the foreseeable future, leaving NI without a viable government.

“The solution is perfectly obvious. The (British) government should be trying to de-dramatise the issue, rebuild trust with the EU and its other allies and negotiate solutions to the undoubted practical problems raised by the protocol.”

Fianna Fail TD Brendan Smith described Mr Powell’s comments as “stark”.

“It is a stark message from a former senior British diplomat,” Mr Smith added.

“It’s worrying for us because as it has been said, relationships between Ireland and Britain are at a low level.”

Mr Powell also accused the British government of attempting to redefine consent and the cross-community consensus and agreement as contained in the peace accord.

Irish politicians have been much better engaging with loyalists than any British politician and British politicians should try harder.

Jonathan Powell

He warned that changing the terms of the Good Friday Agreement would undermine its whole basis.

“It is dangerous to start changing powersharing at this stage given how sensitive it is. It is not wise to undermine consent and cross-community consent,” he added.

“I worry when I see the British Prime Minister taking the terms and adapting them into what he wants politically as opposed to what the Good Friday Agreement states.”

He also warned that ignoring loyalists and their concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol would be a “terrible mistake”.

“Ignoring loyalism and politicians using them as cannon fodder is a big mistake for the future. Offer a way for loyalism,” he added.

“I think it’s important to do that and politicians should all try and reach out to loyalism and encourage them down the route.

“Ignoring loyalists is a terrible mistake. Irish politicians have been much better engaging with loyalists than any British politician and British politicians should try harder.”

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