The most important thing to remember, as Michael Gove prepares to give us the details of the deal he has struck to protect trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain after Brexit, is that regardless of those details the whole thing is a unionist defeat.
In fairness, so too was Theresa May’s deal. The defeat lies not in the specifics but in the very principle, wrongly conceded by British politicians who have never thought about Ulster enough, that we were somehow committed to privileging the Province’s trading relationship with the EU over its one with the mainland.
The Belfast Agreement does not say this. But Dublin and Brussels were not shy about praying in aid of it to justify their maximalist interpretation of British obligations and London, lacking its own coherent understanding and interpretation of the treaty, was swiftly enspelled by the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ meme.
So the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was only ever trying to make the best of a bad job. Did he succeed?
In his statement today, Gove set out the yardsticks by which he hopes to be measured:
“We had to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses retained unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory had to be protected – and that meant that goods that stayed in the UK were not subject to tariffs. And we had to ensure that the important GB-NI trade flows, on which lives and livelihoods depend, were not disrupted; and we need to ensure a smooth flow of trade, with no need for new physical customs infrastructure.”
All worthy objectives, although it’s worth noting that the first has nothing to do with the EU – allowing unilateral trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was always in London’s gift – and that it was never likely that there would be tariffs on internal British trade.
Nonetheless, today’s announcement does suggest that real progress has been made on the third point. The two sides have apparently agreed a ‘trusted trader scheme’ which will see tariff exemptions for 98 per cent of goods moving from the mainland to Ulster. The level of checks is apparently “broadly positive“. Where agreement has not yet been reached, for example on meat products, grace periods have been secured for further negotiations.
It also allows the Government to signal to the US and others that it “takes account of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all of its dimensions”, and to withdraw the controversial ‘international law-breaking’ clauses of the UK Internal Market Bill (which some Government sources suggest helped unlock this breakthrough). This may help get the rest of the UKIM Bill, with its controversial but important provisions regarding mutual recognition and regional spending, through the Lords (although there are reports that Gove plans to abandon these too).
He can also take some satisfaction in having apparently overcome the EU’s insistence that there would be no ‘mini deals’ to ameliorate the impact of a No Deal exit. As this agreement applies “whether we have a Free Trade Agreement with the EU or not”, it would appear to be just such a thing.
On the other hand, gone is the slender hope held out by May’s proposals that ‘alternative arrangements’ might be found in the future to lift the Irish Sea border altogether.
The DUP have also pointed out Irish claims that the ‘grace periods’ are intended only to allow Ulster supermarkets to source products from the Republic, and it is worrying that in response to this Gove offered only a bromide about Northern Irish goods and offered no concrete assurances about mainland ones.
There is also as yet too much uncertainty about the practical operation of this deal. In his statement, Gove said: “We know that we now need to get on and give further clarity to business as to the specifics of what this deal means for them, and how it will all work in detail in practice. And we will do this through the publication of further guidance.” Questions are already being raised about the extent to which his understandable focus on the high-profile problem of supermarket supply chains belies ongoing problems for other businesses.
Urgent clarification is also needed on the state aid compromise. The Government has sought to prevent the situation wherein “a company in Great Britain, with only a peripheral link to commercial operations in Northern Ireland, could be caught inadvertently by the tests within the Protocol’s text”. In his statement, Gove says of his deal:
“It means firms in GB stay outside state aid rules where there is no ‘genuine and direct’ link to Northern Ireland, and no ‘real foreseeable’ impact on NI-EU trade.”
‘Genuine and direct’ and ‘real foreseeable’ are phrases which will end up in front of a court. Which one? If it is the European courts, one doesn’t need to be a European Research Group hardliner to imagine how that’s going to play out over the next ten or twenty years. And in that vein, this seems to do nothing about the fact that Northern Ireland will henceforth be subject to rules and regulations set by institutions in which it is unrepresented.
All in all, then, there are still plenty of grounds for unionist unease. Gove claims to have ameliorated the vast majority of the practical difficulties raised by the Prime Minister’s u-turn on an Irish Sea border, and he may yet prove to have done so. But given the Government’s previous form on Northern Ireland, and his evasiveness today, they have not earned the benefit of the doubt.