Caution is required over the Northern Ireland protocol – a high-stakes political game could go very wrong

If Boris Johnson wants an economic land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, it could prompt not only a trade war but an end to EU cooperation on the climate crisis and immigration

Wednesday 21 July 2021 21:30
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Perhaps one day in the distant future, clever people at dinner parties will make witty jokes about the (by then) obscure Northern Ireland protocol, in much the same way that they recycle Lord Palmerston’s quip about the Schleswig-Holstein question. Nations once went to war over it, but as Palmerston’s saying goes, it’s so complicated that “only three men in Europe have ever understood [it]: one was Prince Albert, who is dead; the second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”

For the moment, though, no one is allowed to forget about the Northern Ireland protocol, and it is no laughing matter. Even at this early stage in its life, it has provoked disorder in the province, as well as death threats, and the prospect of a return to the Troubles. Despite everything, though, the questions the protocol has tried to answer are not so complicated as to drive anyone mad, but very simple. They are as follows: where will the economic border between the UK and EU be? What will it be like? How can it be made consistent with the Good Friday Agreement and maintain the frictionless movement of goods and people on the island of Ireland?

It is the answers, and attempted answers, to these questions that are so complicated. The protocol itself is complex. Its governing processes are also complicated, involving Westminster, Brussels, Belfast and (informally) Dublin. It has joint committees and working groups. It contains provisions for the detailed examination of consignments between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The questions were answered in the protocol. Now the British, who signed it, claim that it is being enforced too zealously through legal purism, and Lord Frost declares that “we cannot go on like this”. Unionists in Northern Ireland find it offensive and impractical. The EU says that London knew what it was signing up for, and the protocol itself is not up for renegotiation.

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