Brexit: why Northern Ireland might learn to love the Protocol
The arrangement has many advantages, even for trade unionists who hate it the most.
Unionists in Northern Ireland are extremely angry right now, for whatever reason. A Conservative government and even a movement that many sympathized with – just trying to ‘get Brexit done’ – ended up erecting a trade barrier along the Irish Sea.
It cut Unionists off from the rest of the UK, only slightly in practice but much more symbolically – challenging their own sense of state and nationality in a changing world.
They have, to be completely honest, more than enough to complain about. It’s not just that they have joined the long list of people betrayed by Boris Johnson, a roll call of rather dogged promises and hopes that will only grow longer over time.
It is that the British government went over their heads, as it has done so many times before, negotiating with Dublin and Brussels, before presenting the leaders of unionism with something almost impossible to sell. to their militants and to the most intractable adherents of loyalty in the street.
The point of principle is also important: why should Antrim and Armagh be treated any differently from Sussex and Surrey? If you are an employer in Northern Ireland, you should in principle have the right to move your property, or the property of others, to your own country as you wish. It is not rocket science.
That said, principle is not everything, and there are many ways that everyone in Northern Ireland can embrace (or, perhaps, reluctantly accept) the Protocol. The world is teeming with intolerable injustice, and many are close to home in a Northern Ireland still torn by division and mistrust: Are sausage imports and (admittedly a lot) form-filling really as important as it is? do they appear so in the abstract?
One would not think so, given the entire infrastructure that the Brexit settlement lends to Northern Ireland.
The Protocol unlocked everything, after years under Theresa May of trying to break down a door that was not so much nailed shut as it was bricked up and repainted.
It was based on a sort of magical thought: that Northern Ireland could both live within the customs union that helps to constitute the United Kingdom, but also follow most of the rules of the single market when it comes to trade in physical goods.
That meant, bingo: a full house. Goods could move freely around the island of Ireland without the UK having to join the EU’s own customs union or follow many regulations. Everyone was happy: except the exporters from Northern Ireland and especially the importers, who had to prove that everything was in line with EU rules, and where everything came and went.
This comprehensive bingo card also evoked or preserved a number of other benefits for the region, some new, some established. Northern Ireland now exists as a sort of intermediary or clearinghouse between the UK and the EU, and given a moment of reflection that could make a lot of people very wealthy.
Anyone born in Northern Ireland can apply for a European passport and move around the EU as they wish; The universities of Northern Ireland will continue to be an integral part of the EU student placement program, Erasmus; and they get it all without contributing anything to the EU budget. It really is a unique solution, and it explains why Europeans become so exasperated when pressured on the Protocol: they feel they have carved out a particular set of benefits for Northern Ireland, not d ‘obligations.
It is also possible that the Protocol can be amended so that it is less cumbersome and bureaucratic – and therefore less offensive to sovereignty and the state. If importers from Northern Ireland source more products from the Republic and reduce the range of products they import from the EU, it will mean that controls will be simplified and make the Protocol’s work easier.
While the UK is unlikely to fully accept the EU’s veterinary and health rules, a set of baselines could be established which, yes, would restrict its style somewhat in future trade negotiations elsewhere – but can at least be presented as a set, not a ‘European’, a set of rules.
Then there is the reality of the detailed provisions of the Protocol, rather than its mythology. Its current text shows blindingly, throughout, that Northern Ireland is still part of the
customs territory of the United Kingdom, and that it will participate fully in the new trade agreements of that country. It is explicitly designed to protect the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a document which itself sets not only in stone Unionist representation in the governance of Northern Ireland, but the need for consent. popular if there is to be a change in its constitutional status.
This reality, and the true benefit of the protocol, comes together when you consider what one could gain from being inside the UK customs area, but the EU’s single market. Recently, Northern Ireland’s exports to the Republic have increased. Although the numbers were likely skewed by the resumption of a low point in the Covid crisis in the spring of 2020, in the first four months of this year, Northern Ireland’s exports to the south increased by 60 % (to Â£ 859million).
If the protocol can work, investors around the world will take a very keen eye on Northern Ireland as a new trade hub that could allow them to export as much as they want to the UK and the UK. EU. As one of the leading providers of high-end skilled jobs in the region, this makes a big difference – and it will be another reason Unionist politicians might see their constituents urging them to keep the protocol, not to tear it up.
Last but not least, Unionists should be wondering if this row could leave them quite high and dry. Northern Ireland is changing. More moderate and non-aligned voices are being stirred: the inter-community Alliance Party has been gaining momentum for some time. The united Unionist parties can only get about half of the votes, which the last weeks of chaos within the Democratic Unionist Party will not have helped much.
Administering another protocol kick might not help them much when voters say ‘well, you were the one who wanted Brexit in the first place’. This is a particularly apt warning for Unionist parties when not only Northern Ireland which voted 56% to 44% to stay in the EU, but polls reveal that sizable minorities of Unionist Party voters Ulster and DUP also voted to Stay.
The noise and fury over Protocol are all very good. They are understandable. It is right that trade unionism be heard beyond any doubt.
But strategy, diplomacy, economics and elections all point the other way: learning to live with the Protocol might be better than the alternatives.
The noise and fury over Protocol are all very good. They are understandable. It is right that trade unionism be heard beyond any doubt. But strategy, diplomacy, economics and elections all point the other way: learning to live with the Protocol might be better than the alternatives.