Boris Johnson’s government is putting the fragile peace in Northern Ireland at risk

There are real, oven-ready solutions available to the prime minister, and if he chose to avail himself of them, he could help ease the tension in Northern Ireland as we head into the summer

Louise Haigh
Tuesday 08 June 2021 12:28
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David Frost warns of Northern Ireland 'turbulence' over Protocol in July

Twenty-three years ago, the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement was signed. Though politicians in a room ushered in the peace, it was every inch a story of the people and communities of Northern Ireland coming together to demand a better future.

This historic achievement was only possible with the partnership of friends around the world – not least the United States. But President Biden, who has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement, this week arrives in the United Kingdom at a time when the peace process has scarcely been more fragile.

The erratic approach of ministers to the Northern Ireland protocol continues to send convulsions through Northern Ireland’s politics.

First, ministers denied the reality of the deal they negotiated. Given the absurdity of that position and the anger it provoked in Northern Ireland, they have now reverted to type and are furiously thrashing around for someone else to blame.

Lord Frost, without a hint of self-awareness, has called the deal he personally negotiated “unsustainable”, yet is lukewarm on solutions which would make it work in the long run. This strategy – if it can be called that – is either an example of bad faith or rank incompetence. It is part of a pattern of behaviour from ministers which continues to destabilise Northern Ireland.

And people simply aren’t buying it. Recent polls in Northern Ireland placed the prime minister and the secretary of state on some of the lowest approval ratings on record. This should give nobody any cause for celebration – credibility matters to the peace process and it is their own credibility that the government is systematically taking an axe to.

In times of instability in Northern Ireland, it has always been the role of the British government to show leadership and help find solutions. The agreement was not a piece of paper signed in 1998, which can be put on a shelf and forgotten about, but a living, breathing peace process which requires the careful custody of our prime minister.

Rather than face these responsibilities, the prime minister and the government act as though they have found themselves at the scene of an accident entirely beyond their control. This is all utterly unnecessary. With a coherent strategy, the barriers down the Irish Sea can be eased.

It will require compromise on both sides based on an honest reflection of the reasons why the protocol was negotiated in the first place; and a determined effort to put right the monumental failures of negotiation and preparation since which have exacerbated the problem.

The first requires senior ministers to simply be honest – the barriers exist because of the Brexit deal they chose, and the red lines they freely insisted on. The precise requirements were clear to everyone in the days after they signed the deal in October 2019 – not only did they not complain about it, they fought and won an election on it.  The prime minister described it as “very, very ingenious”.

The second is to recognise the damage done by the serious failures of negotiation and preparation since. One of Lord Frost’s chief aims was to secure a Veterinary Agreement, commonplace in trade deals the world over.

It would hugely benefit Northern Ireland where checks on food, plant and animal health are responsible for 80 per cent of the barriers currently faced by businesses.

An agreement would be an important compromise for both sides, would lower barriers down the middle of the union, is backed across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, and would help ease the tensions that have arisen. Yet Lord Frost and the government have serious questions to answer about why they have failed to secure an agreement. Is it because low quality food imports are the priority?

Many, across communities, see a prime minister who continues to put his own interests over and above the interests of Northern Ireland, and relies on the same bluster and obfuscation which got Northern Ireland into this position in the first place.

Is the protocol perfect? Far from it. Labour have repeatedly called for compromise from both sides to make it work more effectively. But would a responsible government continue to undermine their own deal without a workable solution to it that preserves the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement? Certainly not.

Where Northern Ireland desperately needs leadership from the prime minister, there is instead a blame game.

There are real, oven-ready solutions available to Boris Johnson, and if he chose to avail himself of them, he could help ease the tension in Northern Ireland as we head into the summer.  But without tangible action and compromise, the risks to the peace process, and to the safety of an entire generation who have grown up in relative peace, will continue to be very real.

Louise Haigh is the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

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