As published in The Daily Telegraph:
In the early days of December 2017, Theresa May agreed, against my strong advice, to concede what she termed “full alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That concession gave the EU continuing power over a part of the United Kingdom, destabilised the fine balance in Ulster that had been achieved by the Good Friday Agreement, and gave the EU a formidable negotiating lever for the rest of the process. It eventually led to the fall of her administration, and the Protocol that implemented it has posed an insuperable problem ever since.
That is why Lord Frost described the Protocol as “the biggest source of mistrust between us” and the EU. It not only threatens business and the flow of goods, but also the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland and the fabric of our national unity.
This wholly unsatisfactory arrangement has resulted in 20 per cent of all customs checks in the whole of the European Union being undertaken in Northern Ireland. That is three times higher than at Europe’s busiest port, Rotterdam. The EU’s operation of the Protocol is unnecessarily bureaucratic, unbearably burdensome, and verging on vindictive. It is certainly not even-handed in the way that the Good Friday Agreement envisaged. David Trimble, who put his life on the line and won the Nobel Prize for the Agreement, has said that the tensions created by the Protocol represent a danger to the lives of people living in Northern Ireland.
Sadly, the disruption caused by the Protocol is representative of the larger problem of the EU always having viewed Northern Ireland as a source of political leverage. That is the only thing that explains its pattern of behaviour, including the attempt to trigger Article 16 in a spiteful response to our vaccine success in January. That behaviour put exercise of the leverage afforded by the Protocol above any interest in the consequences for the people of Ireland, north or south.
Now the EU has conceded the case on border checks, possibly because it realised that its position was untenable. When listening to the ill-informed commentary on the needs for border checks, people should remember that before the Protocol was even imagined, both the heads of Irish and British Customs authorities gave evidence to their respective parliaments that no visible checks were necessary at the Irish border to maintain single-market integrity – but that was before the politicians got involved.
Nevertheless, in the final analysis Brexit was about a democratic decision to control our own affairs. So most British citizens would be surprised to hear that the Protocol gives the European Court of Justice continued power over Northern Ireland. This back-door concession of the UK’s sovereignty perhaps is the most egregious aspect of the Protocol, and correcting that is one of the central demands of the British Government.
As I said to Theresa May back in 2017, this goes to the heart of the whole Brexit argument: it is a matter of sovereignty. While progress on trade can be welcomed, ultimately a palatable Brexit won’t have been achieved until Northern Ireland is no longer subject to EU law.
And what would it cost the EU to soften its position? As Britain’s negotiator made abundantly clear this week, the answer is “very little”. Lord Frost said: “We are not asking to change arrangements within the EU in any way. We are not seeking to generalise special rules for Northern Ireland to any other aspect of our relationship.”
Yet the EU has rejected this request, which tells you how constructive it is really being in this. It desperately wants to avoid a trade war – wisely under current circumstances – but still wants to penalise us for abandoning its project. Well, my advice to Lord Frost is: keep pressing on.
We do not want to relive this history of the past five years and endure more rancour and resentment, we merely want an acceptable solution for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. A strong democracy like Great Britain should be content with no less.