Briefings for Britain has repeatedly argued that the Northern Ireland Protocol is not necessary to protect either the EU Single Market or the Good Friday Agreement. We have further argued that the real motivation behind the Protocol and the ‘backstop’ which preceded it was to try to use Northern Ireland to tie the whole of the UK permanently into the EU’s regulatory orbit. On top of this, the Irish government has seen the protocol as a means to further its agenda of absorbing Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic by stealth.
The EU until now has always denied such motives, preferring instead to piously intone about how the protocol was essential to ‘preserve peace’ or avoid a ‘hard border’ in Ireland. But now, EU sources talking to Irish journalist Tony Connelly have, in a very incautious series of remarks, essentially admitted that Briefings for Britain has been right all along.
Connelly’s article muses about why Lord Frost recently stated that the UK wanted to see the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ended in terms of arbitrating any disputes relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol. He notes correctly that there is a risk that as the UK diverges from the EU in regulatory terms, trade frictions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would increase as the latter will remain stuck under EU Single Market rules.
He then goes on to wonder whether Lord Frost has highlighted the ECJ issue ‘in order to give the UK more future leeway in diverging from EU rules, so it can avoid collateral damage to Northern Ireland’ and follows this up by suggesting that ‘with ECJ oversight gone, the UK might feel shorn of the hindrance that the protocol currently presents.’
This of course could just be idle speculation. But at this point, the very-well connected Connolly then turns to his EU sources, one of whom makes a remarkable admission. A diplomat from a sizable EU country states: ‘Divergence is going to be a problem anyway…if the UK is going to diverge then Max Fac is going to fall away. It won’t be sufficient if they start diverging.’
This statement needs careful analysis. What the source is saying is that the various proposals the EU are putting forward to ease the operation of the protocol and improve trade flows between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – which are sometimes referred to as ‘Maximum Facilitation’ or ‘Max Fac’ – are contingent upon the UK as a whole continuing to remain tightly aligned with EU regulations. If the UK diverges significantly, the EU will withdraw the easements, and in so doing reimpose the current difficulties in Northern Ireland’s trade with the mainland.
This is a clear admission that the EU sees the new proposals for easing the protocol’s trade restrictions as a means to stop the UK diverging from EU regulations. The new proposals, if enacted, would thus be a Sword of Damocles hanging over the UK – threatening Northern Ireland’s trade, prosperity, and political stability to achieve the goal of UK convergence with EU regulations. Northern Ireland would be the pressure point the EU squeezes every time it feels the UK is slipping out of its regulatory grasp. A more dishonourable, reckless, and cynical strategy in a divided society with a history of communal violence is hard to imagine.
Further on in Connelly’s article, we find sources from within the Northern Irish ‘business community’ enthusiastically talking up the diversion of Northern Ireland trade away from Great Britain and towards the EU – something which the protocol cites as grounds for invoking Article 16 and suspending parts of its provisions. Connelly’s source argues that the longer the protocol operates, the more diversion will occur: “At a certain point not too far away,” says the source, “there won’t be any commercial unionism to save, because companies will all have made their practical commercial arrangements to deliver within the protocol. Most have already done so.”
The key thing here is the term ‘commercial unionism’. The use of this term makes it overwhelmingly likely that the source is an Irish nationalist. This industry source clearly views the protocol as a vehicle for progressing nationalist aspirations by cutting Northern Ireland off from trade with Great Britain. So here we have confirmation of another of the arguments Briefings for Britain has made about the real purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
These explosive views highlight aspects of the Protocol and the new proposals which are uncomfortable truths that no UK government can ignore. They call into question whether it is worth the UK government pursuing negotiations with the EU on reforming the protocol. The EU has made no secret of its desire to tie the UK into its regulatory orbit – in order to avoid the threat of competition from a lightly/more smartly regulated neighbour. If the EU’s real purpose is indeed to use the new proposals force the UK into regulatory alignment then these proposals cannot be accepted even if they offer some short-term relief. If the EU is actually encouraging trade diversion – which remember is by definition going to be economically damaging for Northern Ireland (replacing relatively cheap products with relatively more expensive ones) and is cited in the Protocol itself as a reason to trigger Article 16 – then the protocol should go in its entirety – and soon – as an existential threat to the prosperity of the whole of the UK and to the UK’s political unity and constitutional order.