The approach of summer raises anxiety levels within the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), for it heralds the beginning of the ‘marching season’, which runs each year from April to August. In the lead up to summer 2021, fallout from the Brexit debate has caused the PSNI’s anxiety levels to ratchet up to an extent not seen for many years. And behind it all stands a Tory politician playing a dangerous political game.
The Brexit withdrawal agreement agreed in October 2019 and signed by British prime minister, Boris Johnson, includes the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Its purpose is to avoid customs and regulatory checks of goods passing between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Under the NIP those checks are to be undertaken when goods enter Northern Ireland, whether from Great Britain or from another country outside the EU – the so-called ‘border in the Irish Sea’.
In that way, the integrity of the European Union’s single market is preserved while keeping an open border on the island of Ireland, a key objective for all sides in the Brexit negotiations aimed at preserving the peace achieved through the Good Friday Agreement.
The other side of the coin, however, is that Northern Ireland has effectively been excised from the United Kingdom’s single market, contrary to fundamental unionist principle.
That outcome is down to Boris Johnson, who succeeded Theresa May as prime minister in July 2019 after her proposed withdrawal agreement failed to win parliamentary approval. May had sought to avoid a border in the Irish Sea except as a last resort in the event alternative arrangements could not be agreed.
Her so-called ‘backstop’ was anathema to the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which helped defeat her proposal and her prime ministership.
The DUP’s support of Johnson was assured after he told the party’s annual conference in November 2018 that no British government could or should sign up to putting a border in the Irish Sea. Despite that pledge, Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, which includes the NIP, does exactly that. May’s backstop became Johnson’s frontstop. Too late the DUP realised its mistake.
The terms of Johnson’s withdrawal agreement were published in October 2019 and taken to the general election in December 2019, which Johnson won in a landslide with the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’. When the new parliament met in January 2020 it passed the legislation necessary to implement the withdrawal agreement including the NIP. As a result, the UK left the EU on 1 February 2020, subject to a transition period that would end on 31 December.
In December 2020 the UK and the EU signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which established a free trade regime in goods that came into effect at the end of the transition period.
They also agreed a series of schedules for the implementation of the NIP that included grace periods to enable business owners and bureaucrats to develop systems for navigating the post-Brexit world where the UK, like other non-member states, would have to follow the normal processes in respect of goods entering the EU.
Fast forward to mid 2021 and we are now hearing a chorus of conservative and unionist politicians, led by Johnson and his Brexit Secretary, Lord Frost, complaining that the NIP is an abomination, which is causing huge problems for the supply of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. In addition, many in the unionist community are demanding the NIP be scrapped altogether, as its existence undermines their British identity. Jeffrey Donaldson MP said that the NIP had ‘stripped away [unionists’] sense of Britishness’.
In a rational world, one might expect the prime minister to demand to know, ‘Who the bloody hell negotiated and signed this appalling agreement?’ But we do not hear that question, because the chief culprits are Johnson and Lord Frost, who in 2019 was the civil servant in charge of negotiating the withdrawal agreement.
Instead, Lord Frost was heard to complain that the EU was taking ‘a very purist view of all this’ by insisting that goods moving to Northern Ireland from Great Britain be treated in the same way as a Chinese container ship at Rotterdam: ‘We did not anticipate this when we agreed the Protocol and it makes no sense’.
Really? Was not the purpose of Brexit to enable the United Kingdom to act and be treated as a sovereign independent nation like, for instance, China?
In March the British government unilaterally extended the mutually agreed grace periods on some goods and is threatening to do so on others. In May the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, called for border controls and paperwork to be scrapped altogether. In June Johnson warned that he would not hesitate to suspend parts of his Brexit deal on Northern Ireland unless the EU stopped dealing with the issue in a ‘theologically draconian’ way. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused the EU of being ‘bloody minded’.
How do we account for such extraordinary behaviour regarding an international treaty negotiated, signed and approved by the same people who are attacking it?
There are two broad theories. The first is that Johnson and Frost did not understand what they signed and are only now realising its consequences – the incompetence theory. The second is that they well knew what they were signing but, having overthrown May on the promise they would Get Brexit Done, they were prepared to sign whatever the EU required and wriggle out of it later – the conspiracy theory.
Normally, when forced to choose between incompetence and conspiracy, you are more likely to be correct if you opt for incompetence. And given bumbling Boris’s reputation for bombast and lack of attention to detail, it is tempting to go that way. Yet it raises the question whether the standard of the British civil service has been so degraded that nobody in the government properly read and understood the NIP before advising it was ready to be signed. Not unexpectedly, the answer to that question is no.
A cabinet briefing paper prepared when the NIP was negotiated in 2019 explained the situation clearly:
“Any processes normally required on goods entering the EU will be implemented at the Northern Ireland-Rest of the World border or on trade moving East-West between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Apart from the damage to Britain’s international reputation, the government’s attack on the NIP is inflaming a volatile situation that has been brewing in Northern Ireland for months.
In the weeks before Easter, unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, who had been taken in by Johnson’s perfidious promises, recklessly used inflammatory language to attack the NIP in order to regain street cred with an increasingly disillusioned constituency. By framing the NIP as a threat to the union, they all but ensured that hardline loyalists would come out on to the streets, which they did, burning buses and pelting police with rocks.
Banners declaring ‘Say No to Irish Sea Border’ are now appearing at the traditional Orange parades. Placards pinned to lampposts in loyalist neighbourhoods and graffiti daubed on walls deliver the same message. The traditional ‘No Surrender’ has given way to ‘No Border No Barrier’.
In their attempt to wriggle out of the NIP, Johnson and Frost have found common cause with discredited unionist politicians seeking to re-engage with their base, a task made more complicated by the fact that the DUP is in disarray, having now lost two leaders in three weeks.
Instead of calming the situation, as President Biden recently urged, British politicians are ramping up the rhetoric, making statements that implicitly threaten violence, like Lord Frost’s setting 12 July as the cut-off date for changes to the NIP.
This is the biggest day of the marching season, when Protestant unionists celebrate the victory of the Protestant Prince William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In a normal year the mix of alcohol and testosterone that day is a potent brew; in a year when loyalists are being told the union is under threat, who knows what the octane level of the brew will be.
As a government source told London’s Daily Telegraph,
‘We need a bit of movement by then because that is when we risk seeing the kind of disruption and the protests that we had recently’. In other words, the British government’s implicit message to the EU is: ‘If you do not give in to our demands, the boyos will be out in force and angry, and any violence will be your fault’.
Tory politicians have often used Ireland as a cat’s paw for domestic political gain: think Lord Randolph Churchill’s playing the Orange card in 1886 to bring down William Gladstone’s government; think Andrew Bonar Law’s 1912 declaration, ‘I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them’, to defeat Herbert Asquith’s Home Rule Bill.
In attacking the NIP, the one Johnson once trumpeted as a success, the prime minister is following a well-trodden path in British politics: sowing discord in Ireland for political gain at home. In this case its purpose is to maintain his support among the Brexiters who dominate his party.
So far, the EU has stood firm, insisting the UK honour its obligations under the NIP, while indicating a willingness to negotiate ways to make compliance easier. Its position is unlikely to change. So, unless Johnson follows Biden’s advice to calm the rhetoric – which he might do if only to avoid jeopardising a free trade deal with the United States – he will provide nothing to the people of Northern Ireland this summer’s marching season but a bitter brew.