Northern Ireland deserves better

It was never likely that the government’s efforts to negotiate the worst aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU would yield any result. Since the referendum, Brussels has sought to arm the province’s thorny politics to prevent a real Brexit. Their obsession with procedure and bureaucracy, coupled with their ideological commitment to protecting the ‘integrity’ of the single market, has prevented them from making the sensible and pragmatic changes that are clearly needed.

There can be little doubt that the Protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s position within the Union. Controls in the Irish Sea have led to trade diversion, making it difficult for province companies to sell to Britain and vice versa. The Unionist backlash has shattered Northern Ireland’s fragile political balance, as the DUP refuses to enter power-sharing with Sinn Féin without changes to protocol. A return to violence is feared. The EU’s claims of protecting the Good Friday Agreement would be absurd if the situation were not so precarious.

The government says it is serious about fixing this mess. Foreign Minister Liz Truss yesterday indicated that after talks with Maroš Sefčovič, the EU’s chief negotiator, broke down, ministers now have no choice but to act. The government could invoke Article 16, a safeguard clause that Brussels itself briefly triggered in the vaccine dispute. Alternatively, legislation could be introduced in Westminster to overrule essential parts of the Protocol.

There would be retaliation. Senior EU officials have even threatened to suspend the entire post-Brexit trade deal, which would inevitably worsen the economic crises affecting both Britain and the continent. But there would never be a good moment to resolve this, and to suggest that now, with the war raging in Ukraine, this would somehow play into Vladimir Putin’s hands is ridiculous. Britain does not need to prove its commitment to the Western alliance to countries like Germany or France, which have done far less for Kyiv.

If the government does decide that the talks have collapsed and that it must act unilaterally, then it should move forward. Northern Ireland deserves better than fanfare and rhetoric or once again becoming a tool in a major political game. Ministers should act to protect the provincial place in the UK. Northern Ireland deserves better

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