Iain Macwhirter: We need a Food Friday Agreement to unblock the Brexit border

·6-min read
A Give Way sign at Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast, following the historic result at the weekend with Sinn Fein overtaking the DUP to become the first nationalist or republican party to emerge top at Stormont. Picture date: Monday May 9, 2022..
A Give Way sign at Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast, following the historic result at the weekend with Sinn Fein overtaking the DUP to become the first nationalist or republican party to emerge top at Stormont. Picture date: Monday May 9, 2022..

Sausage Wars – Biden steps in. The US President has sent a team of influential congressmen to stop Boris Johnson ditching the Northern Ireland Protocol this week. But do they know what they’ve got themselves into?

US DEMOCRATS regard Brexit Britain as an archaic land run by right-wing nationalists, a bit like Hungary with bowler hats.

So the matter may look straight-forward to the Irish-friendly President: Stop Boris wrecking the Good Friday Agreement (GFE). Threaten to block any British-American trade deal if he doesn’t stick to the letter of the protocol.

Brexit was Britain’s fault, so it should pay the cost of having checks applied to British meats (and Scottish fish) entering the province. The GFE says there must be no border posts or customs checks between the Republic of Ireland and the North. If that means having a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, then so be it. Boris should just suck it up.

Only it isn’t quite as simple as that.

The protocol (NIP) was certainly a fudge. It accepts that Northern Ireland will remain under the strict border regulations of the EU Single Market and the European Court. But it also says, repeatedly, there will be “unfettered” trade between the North and the rest of the UK. No customs checks, tariffs or paperwork.

These clauses are irreconcilable. The EU negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, insists on the former interpretation, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on the latter. Not so much a dialogue of the deaf but a map reading for the blind. The root of the problem isn’t actually the protocol but the Good Friday Agreement itself. It, too, declared that the settlement in the province must not weaken the integrity of the United Kingdom.

It also gave the unionist community –essentially the political parties that claim to represent it – a veto on the constitutional future of the province under the consent principle. They have now exercised that veto by collapsing Stormont.

The Good Friday Agreement never mentioned Europe since it assumed that Britain and the Republic of Ireland would be remaining in the single market. Everyone did. That meant there was no European dimension and no-one had to think about regulatory borders with EU. Everyone was happily in the customs union.

Not a sausage sausage

ANYWAY, the people who negotiated the GFE weren’t interested in sausages and sandwiches. They assumed that any minor trading anomalies were a price worth paying for peace in Ireland. One suspects that Martin McGuinness and Dr Ian Paisley, who set aside a lifetime of militant enmity to form the first Northern Ireland government, would be turning in their graves to learn that it was coming apart now because Sainsbury’s couldn’t sell its honey roast ham in Belfast.

But the Democratic Unionist Party are adamant that the protocol undermines the GFE precisely because it has placed a regulatory and customs border between two parts of the unitary United Kingdom. And the truth is that they are right. It does.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which wields the veto, won’t accept it. The Brits, and Dublin, probably thought that unionists would eventually acquiesce to the protocol, because the North was getting an offer it couldn’t refuse.

Businesses in the province now benefit from having frictionless trade with both the EU Single Market and the UK. Companies are eager to set up in Northern Ireland to escape Brexit.

The protocol is a great deal from a purely commercial point of view. But economics was never the issue. This is about culture and history.

One suspects that Boris Johnson was content to have a border of sorts in the Irish Sea in 2019. His interests were in “Getting Brexit Done”. If that meant ditching the unionists, so be it.

After all, under the GFE, Britain accepted it had “no selfish strategic interest” in keeping the North in the UK. It accepted that if the north voted for reunification then the UK Government would accept it.

But the Protestant Unionists were never going to accept being pitched into Catholic Ireland. They had fought hard a century ago to prevent being swallowed up. Yet now their mortal enemies Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, have just won the Stormont election, raising more unionist fears that a United Ireland is just around the corner.

It probably is.

Sinn Fein’s raison d’etre is Irish reunification. By creating a border in the Irish Sea, the protocol has gone a long way towards a de facto United Ireland. Sinn Fein wants as much border as possible between the Island of Ireland and the rest of the UK.

SNP confusions

INDEED, it is puzzling that the Scottish National Party is so keen to get into bed with Sinn Fein. Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the victory of Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill and John Swinney has called for the parties to work together. But to what end?

The SNP says it doesn’t want a border in the UK between Scotland and England after independence. The SNP wants to be in the EU Single Market and have unfettered access to Scotland’s biggest trading partner, England. Logically, it should be backing the Unionist case for no checks on goods. That would establish a precedent for indy Scotland to be in the EU and also in the UK.

Events are now spinning out of control. On Friday, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, brought Northern Ireland democracy to a grinding halt by refusing to elect a speaker. Does it matter if

power-sharing in Northern Ireland falters? The world hasn’t ended just because Stormont has been suspended. Governance can continue. Perhaps it is time to scrap the unionist veto. Does the DUP really speak for the people of the province?

But with their backs to the wall, there is a risk that unionists will take to the streets. They have already done so in protests against the protocol. The violence has largely been contained so far. But it seems likely it will resume if this situation continues for much longer. The DUP is under threat from more militant wings of the unionist movement.

‘Clearly daft’ s

IT is the EU that will decide this matter ultimately, not the US. The only viable solution would be to end the border checks on both borders – North/South and East/West. A tiny amount of EU trade crosses from Britain to Northern Ireland. It is clearly daft that British supermarkets can cannot sell sandwiches in an integral part of the UK. What is needed is for everyone to calm down and negotiate a Food Friday Agreement that allows borderless free trade in and out of the province.

Brussels seems to regard the protocol a matter of principle and perhaps it is. But the integrity of the single market has already been compromised by the GFE and by having the North in the single market when it is also part of the UK.

Brussels originally focused attention on the Northern Ireland issue because it saw it as a way of impeding Brexit. Indeed, under Theresa May’s Northern Ireland Backstop – remember that? – Britain as a whole would have remained in the EU Customs Union.

But the Backstop was decisively rejected by the UK Parliament and Brexit is not going away.

Neither, unfortunately, are the men of violence in Ulster.

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