Last week, I looked at press reports that David Frost had secured what I called a “stay of execution” for east-west supply chains between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
And indeed, this morning’s papers report that the UK and the EU have agreed a three-month extension to the ‘grace periods’ on foodstuffs being shipped from the mainland to the Province, as well as generally improved relations between the two sides in the negotiations.
So far, so good. However, a three-month extension is not a lasting solution, and there are still plenty of signs that the two sides are a long way from finding one.
EU sources, for example, have been briefing that London has accepted that this latest extension is indeed to allow Northern Irish businesses to establish new, south-facing supply chains, which if true would make the entire standoff pointless. Meanwhile the FT reports that the Prime Minister insists that it is for Brussels to move:
“Johnson said the EU needed to address its interpretation of the protocol and how it related to “the ban on chilled meats, the restriction on the circulation of cancer drugs, and the fact that 20 per cent of all the customs checks carried out in the whole of the EU are carried out in Northern Ireland”.”
Stephen Booth has outlined on this site today how the UK intends to push for a bespoke arrangement, just as several other countries have done.
Meanwhile Unionists will take even less comfort from Boris Johnson’s stern tone than even they might previously after yesterday’s defeat in a Belfast court of the legal challenge to the Protocol. Government lawyers successfully argued that the Withdrawal Act had impliedly repealed Article Six of the Act of Union, which provides for unhindered free trade within the United Kingdom, despite the Prime Minister insisting in the House of Commons that no such thing had taken place.
The result sheds a cold light on skewed legal playing field faced by those trying to defend Northern Ireland’s position in the Union. The judge conceded that the Act of Union is a ‘constitutional statute’, but denied it the immunity from implied repeal that is basically what defines a ‘constitutional statute’. He acknowledged that trade between the two parts of the country was on an unequal footing, but denied that Northern Ireland’s ‘constitutional status’ had changed in any manner relevant to the Belfast Agreement.
I have written before about the dangers of applying the Agreement in a one-sided fashion, and this is another example. Over the past few years, the narrow range of north-south issues protected under the Annex to Strand Two have somehow metastasized into an entitlement to an invisible economic and social border with the Republic of Ireland that is nowhere in the text of the treaty.
Meanwhile the courts are increasingly holding to the Irish nationalists’ line that Ulster’s connections to Great Britain have no such protection, and the Belfast Agreement’s protections for the Province’s status apply only to top-level British sovereignty.
This is not what unionists thought they were signing up to. We know because David Trimble is telling us, although it is no longer fashionable to pay much regard to the Nobel Prize-winning co-architect of the treaty everyone professes to be so concerned about. Given that the Belfast Agreement and the settlement that rests on it only works if it commands the respect of both communities, you’d think it was obvious that weaponising it against one of them is extremely short-sighted.
Instead we have Simon Hoare accusing unionists of trying to ‘shred’ the Agreement… by trying to assert the protections they thought they enjoyed under it.
“We’ve lost a court case let’s shred the GFA in revenge” is not the politics NI wants or deserves. Or was the shredding of the GFA always the end game?
— Simon Hoare MP (@Simon4NDorset) June 30, 2021
This strikes a similar tone to that adopted by anonymous EU sources in the Irish press during the negotiations, when they said that Theresa May should “say to the DUP, listen you guys you’ve got nowhere else to go anyway, so this is what’s going to happen”. Basically, Northern Irish unionists should stop making things awkward for Brussels as it tackles the deadly peril to the Single Market posed by illegal British sausages.