As with so many Brexit problems it is always someone else’s fault. In the case of the North of Ireland, blame lies not with those such as David Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, who signed the deal, but with Remainer opponents who “forced” them into it.
This is the justification for continued intransigence in the dispute over the NI protocol, through which Frost and Johnson eroded the province’s constitutional integrity within the UK to maximise the Brexit freedoms for the British mainland. Outfoxed by Dublin and outgunned by the EU, they agreed that the North of Ireland would become a discrete EU jurisdiction with a Brexit Sea Border in the Irish Sea.
Tories, and NI’s unionist parties, have been trying to rewrite the deal ever since — aided by the EU’s overly zealous implementation of border checks on goods from Britain. The row has resulted in political stasis within the North of Ireland and the collapse of its power-sharing executive in Stormont. Relations were further poisoned when Johnson unveiled legislation unilaterally abrogating the Good Friday Agreement (GFA)
Suddenly, there is optimism that under Rishi Sunak a reset of relations might allow a new settlement. The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and Chris Heaton-Harris, NI Secretary of State, are working with Maroš Šefčovič’s team at the European Commission to find areas for agreement. Common ground on relaxing the border checks is close, though this resolves only some trade issues. Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, admits all sides “made mistakes” and has suggested shelving other planned rules. A data-sharing deal has raised hopes of “express lanes” for goods intended only for the North of Ireland, to remove the checks that deter mainland firms from selling there.
Sadly, this is the easy part. Initial worries have hardened into sovereignty arguments and led the Democratic Unionist party, cheered on by Brexit hardliners, to boycott, and so bring down the Stormont executive. Placing the North of Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods left it in Brussels’ regulatory orbit with the European Court of Justice as ultimate arbiter of issues covering VAT, trade and state aid. This pass was sold by the Brexiters.
Here lies the deeper problem: that egg cannot be unscrambled. The situation can be improved and some oversight scaled back. But there is no viable outcome under which the EU surrenders all jurisdiction. The North of Ireland will not fully regain its previous status.
So the challenge is to find enough of a fudge to break the logjam, one where the UK accepts the reality but the EU agrees to use its power lightly. Multiple ideas are advanced. There is talk of restricting the ECJ’s trade remit to goods not in the express lane. Better still would be the creation of a trade arbitration panel to settle disputes, reducing the ECJ’s status as final word. This would not resolve all issues. But without concessions Sunak will face enormous and possibly fatal internal opposition from the faction in his party that already distrusts him. So there are limits to what he can sell. This is why the EU needs to help him.
Brussels might be tempted simply to deliver the trade improvements and then wait for the possibility of a more amenable Labour government. But the Ukraine crisis has highlighted the need for European unity, which cannot wait for up to two years. The conditions for agreement are here. The UK and Ireland want a deal, Brussels sees Sunak as more reliable than his predecessors and the US is pressing for a way through.
This could be a defining issue for Sunak. Standing up to his ultras to drive through a deal that improves life for the people in the North of Ireland would show him to be a politically brave problem-solver. There are other electoral benefits. He knows voters are fed up with Brexit wrangles and want him focused on other issues.
The alternative to helping Sunak may be fresh confrontation. The legislation breaching the agreement may be in parliamentary limbo but it need not stay there.
Nor can Stormont be left idle indefinitely — not least when there are pressing economic problems to tackle. The DUP’s political misjudgments on Brexit have been epic and their intransigence legendary, but an effort to mollify them must be made. This year will be the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Joe Biden may even fly in from the US for the ceremonies. But they will feel rather hollow if the executive at the centre of that deal is still shuttered.
While Sunak must resist his hardliners, he cannot be expected to commit political suicide. He needs a solution that can credibly be presented as restoring some balance on sovereignty.
It may be that no deal can satisfy his purists or persuade the DUP back into government: to compromise would be to acknowledge a reality that Brexiters cannot accept, that the North of Ireland’s previous status is irrevocably altered. NI can never go back to the way it was before the DUP pushed NI into Brexit. Mechanisms may change but tax, state aid and sovereignty issues will still bubble up, especially if the Tories do increase regulatory divergence.
So three conditions are needed. Sunak needs the gumption to drive home a deal. Brussels must help him enough to make it worth the pain and the ultras and unionists need to accept the reality to which they were the midwives. The last may be a forlorn hope, but only once they accept there is no return to the old status quo will there be hope for a deal everyone can swallow. The DUP has guaranteed there is no path back to the previous NI status quo before Brexit.
With many thanks to the:https://www.ft.com and email@example.com for the original story.
Follow this link to to find out more on this story: There is no path back to a pre-Brexit Northern Ireland: https://www.ft.com/content/f2e5a5f4-38b8-44ab-8230-ba28c5971ba4
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