In October 2019 I met Boris Johnson in the Wirral. It was an appropriately “neutral” venue, and I was happy to meet the prime minister in the north-west of England. At the time, controversy surrounded the backstop, which the European Union had negotiated with the former prime minister Theresa May. This mechanism was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, and to protect Ireland’s place in the EU single market while respecting Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market. It would have kept the whole of the United Kingdom close to the European single market on regulations and customs rules, thus removing the need for many of the checks between Britain and Northern Ireland that are currently required.
May’s commitment to the union was so strong and genuine that she was willing to opt for a “soft” Brexit to protect it. I was keen to hear whether Johnson had any suggestions that could resolve the impasse, and perhaps develop into an alternative to the backstop. We had a very good meeting, much of it conducted in private, one-on-one. We both wanted a deal. I felt that we understood each other’s needs and red lines. A crucial point was democratic consent: we both agreed that only the Northern Ireland assembly should be allowed to revoke any solution that we agreed.
Immediately following the meeting, we both spoke publicly about having reached a “pathway towards an agreement”. This pathway led ultimately to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, a vital component in the “oven-ready” Brexit deal that the prime minister used to secure his 80-seat majority in the general election that followed.
Since then, Brexit has taken place, and the protocol is now part of a legally binding international agreement. It is international law. In its final form, it was co-designed by the UK and the EU. It was adopted by the British parliament, the European parliament and the Irish parliament, as well as the governments of 26 other member states. That’s not an easy thing to do.
The protocol is working. There is no hard border between Ireland’s north and south. The EU single market is protected, as is the Republic of Ireland’s place in it. Northern Ireland is outperforming the rest of the UK economically, and north-south trade on the island of Ireland has increased.
The protocol was even beginning to gain acceptance – albeit without enthusiasm – from some unionist politicians. It is broadly supported by Northern Ireland’s business community, which has access to the British market, as well as the European Union and its 450 million consumers.
Yet the UK government has changed tack, threatening to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol. The uncertainty about whether the protocol will survive and in what form is now the major concern of Northern Ireland’s businesses, and the country is losing out on investment opportunities as a result.
Crucially, a clear majority of members in the newly elected Northern Ireland assembly and four of the five political parties are in favour of retaining the protocol, either as it stands or in a modified form. They may want improvements, changes, the removal of some barriers or some of the checks, but they do not want it scrapped or overridden, and oppose any unilateral action by London.
The MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) who want the protocol to be scrapped are in a minority. Many members of the unionist community have concerns about the protocol that cannot be dismissed. There are issues regarding the transit of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland that are destined for the province. I can understand these concerns. Nobody wants checks or controls on trade within their own country, even if it was an inevitable and forewarned consequence of the Brexit that many of them supported.
The protocol can be improved and modified. The EU has been very flexible already. The European commission has been engaging diligently with the British government to resolve these concerns for years. That has been demonstrated in changes we made with regard to medicines, and tolerance of the fact that some checks and controls required by the protocol have not been fully implemented. The EU will continue talking to the UK for as long as the UK is willing to engage. But negotiating with a partner that is willing to break agreements and change its mind on what it wants is not easy. The EU’s flexibility and good faith have not been reciprocated by the UK government. This is breeding mistrust in EU capitals.
The fact that the UK government has talked openly about breaching international law is a matter of concern and contrasts with the leadership that it has shown for Ukraine, supporting the country against Russia’s invasion, which has breached international law in a very serious way.
Ireland has always been open to other solutions, including a customs union, a closer relationship with the single market, a European free trade area and the backstop. That would have eliminated the need for checks between Northern Ireland and Britain. Perhaps in the future, Britain may reconsider these options, but I know they are not options at the moment.
Any British government that claims to be “pro-union” and any British prime minister who is also the minister for the union must understand the consequences of imposing a policy on Northern Ireland that is not supported by the majority of the people there. They must recognise that this will further reduce support for the union, in my view. Brexit weakened middle-ground support for the union in Northern Ireland. Unilateral action on the protocol will weaken it even more.
Ireland will continue to work with the UK government and the EU to improve the protocol in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. Trust can be restored and progress can be made, which would be to the benefit of everyone on these islands.
But talk of scrapping the protocol and starting again is totally counterproductive. The democratic vote of the people of Northern Ireland has to be respected. It has to be acknowledged that the protocol was freely agreed by the British government and led by Johnson, and by EU governments. The focus has to be on improving the protocol, not scrapping it. That is the only way to protect the benefits it brings for the people of Northern Ireland.