As published by The Telegraph:
On a dark Sunday afternoon in December 2017, I received a call from Theresa May, the then prime minister. She told me that she had agreed a new form of words in negotiations over the Brexit deal with the EU that “might cause me some concern”. She was right. The words amounted to an agreement to allow “full regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Put to one side the fact that she had undertaken these discussions without notifying me – her Brexit Secretary – at all. The actual consequences of the agreement were predictably disastrous. The words started a process that led to my resignation, but much more importantly led to the situation that we face today, with the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of the Brexit deal both at risk.
Frankly, these risks were immediately obvious. Indeed, it was clear from the nervous behaviour of No 10 the next day that they thought that I might well resign on the spot. I considered it, but decided to make a last ditch effort to make Theresa’s deal work, against what were now very steep odds. Theresa obviously thought that the full alignment was of outcomes, not detailed regulations, but that belief collapsed in days as the EU made plain it meant no such thing. And after six months of struggling to make it work, it became obvious that this could not be done. Far from “Brexit means Brexit”, under this strategy Brexit meant something else altogether.
So I resigned in order to drive the process back to what the British people voted for.
However, whilst Lord David Frost was able to recover some of the lost ground under a new Prime Minister, on the issue of Northern Ireland the European Commission was recalcitrant. The Commission and the European Parliament, operating in the echo chamber that is Brussels, have persuaded themselves that they are the guardians of the peace process in Northern Ireland. They are not. It is a formidably complex process with almost no precedent in the rest of the world.
Even the Irish government makes mistakes. Last week, for example, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney made much of his opinion that the majority of the MLAs in Belfast agreed with the Protocol, ignoring the fact that the Good Friday Agreement was designed to prevent the dictatorship of the majority, and force consensus. The fact that the largest party in Stormont is no longer Unionist does not alter that critical principle.
Today, May’s backstop is gone, but it has been replaced by the still flawed Protocol. Boris Johnson agreed to the Protocol under considerable duress back in 2019. With no Parliamentary majority, and little good will coming from Brussels, he was forced to sign up to this problematic and unfair clause. Now it is fueling division and bitterness in Northern Ireland, where there is no devolved government and no prospect of one being formed any time soon.
It’s time for serious action to reform the Protocol, drastically reducing the onerous restrictions it places on the free flow of people and trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Getting the EU’s approval will, of course, be no easy task. Inevitably, relations with Brussels have been strained ever since we voted to Leave back in 2016. At times, it has felt like some of the EU’s top bureaucrats have wanted to make an example of the UK, punishing us for daring to exit their undemocratic bloc. The unelected Commission poses the biggest obstacle to a collaborative future relationship with the EU. And it is the main hurdle to pass before we can resolve the escalating problems in Northern Ireland.
So what is the answer? The bureaucrats are powerful, but so are the various heads of government of the EU’s member states. Boris Johnson, then, must go on a tour of European capitals appealing directly to prime ministers and presidents in a bid to resolve the Ulster problem.
This has a number of virtues. It is natural for busy heads of government around the EU to accept without question the simplistic analysis emanating from Brussels. We have to make clear to them the damage that the Protocol is doing. We have to make it plain that we take this very seriously indeed. And we have to explain – not threaten – that if necessary we will take whatever action is needed to rescue a part of our nation from the penalties that have been unfairly imposed upon it. We will do it with regret, but we will do it.
Why would Europe’s leaders listen to Boris, you might ask. But much the same was said when Boris went to Brussels to renegotiate the Brexit deal in 2019, and when he negotiated our Free Trade Agreement with the EU. The UK team used the negotiating leverage that we had and came back with a deal. The truth is that the EU did not want a trade war any more than we did.
The same is true today. What’s more, our reputation has risen in the wake of our wholehearted support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. This has demonstrated what the rest of Europe knows in its heart, namely that Britain has an important role to play outside of the EU. Why else would Emmanuel Macron have suggested that the UK could join in his vision for a wider European bloc featuring non-EU states?
There are clear reasons for European leaders to listen. Most of them have no desire to risk peace in Northern Ireland. And amid worsening economic circumstances, they do not wish to risk provoking trade disputes with the UK.
Yet many of them do not fully appreciate the complexities of the situation, having bought the simplistic narrative set forth by the pro-EU lobby. We need to make them understand that this is not post-imperial Britain trying to maintain control over an ex-colony. It is a matter of national sovereignty and security.
So a huge diplomatic initiative aimed at the EU heads of government may enable us to get a more constructive response from Brussels. If it does not, it will at least mean that when we act, we do so from the moral high ground, in defence of the Good Friday Agreement, not as our opponents would like to paint us, as the villains of the piece.