Northern Ireland Protocol: the whole thing stinks

Image by Jedi Shaman

As a former diplomat and civil servant, I tend to distrust the media when complex things like the Northern Ireland protocol are concerned. So, since returning from France – where I heard a lot of views on Brexit and its consequences from people as diverse as market traders, hoteliers, long term British residents and random acquaintances in bars – I thought I would conduct my own investigation. I used a number of old contacts (those who have not resigned because of Brexit and constant attacks on the Civil Service, from the current administration).

In the 1990s, I worked across the EU advising on the implementation of EU directives on energy, water and public services. The one thing I learnt from that – and this is not going to surprise anyone – is that the EU regard the Single Market as their greatest achievement and will not countenance anything that puts it at risk.

The Good Friday Agreement asserts the primacy of an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Fine. If the UK is no longer in the Single Market, that means there has to be a mechanism to monitor goods going between the two parts Ireland. Fine. So how do we do that?

The so-called border in the Irish Sea and the paperwork and delays involved are genuinely causing a problem. But who is causing the problem and why? According to my informants, the UK government promised to provide the EU with real-time data on the goods crossing between Britain and Northern Ireland. This was to be done on the basis of entering the coded inventories of lorries crossing to Northern Ireland into a database, which was to be shared with the EU system in real time.

This is what the UK promised. It has not happened. According to my informants, the EU has on three occasions given the UK more time to get the system up and running but the UK has still not complied with the obligations it signed up to.

If the system worked, it would still require lorries leaving Britain to produce paperwork detailing what they were carrying and where it was going, but delays would be minimal, and the integrity of the Single Market would be maintained.

So why has it not happened? Are there technical problems? Perhaps, but no-one seems to be mentioning them. The view of my contacts in the Diplomatic and Civil Servants (who, for obvious reasons, I do not wish to name) is that the British government does not want or intend this to happen.

Their understanding is that the British government signed up to the Northern Ireland protocol, with the full flourish of trumpets, in order to ‘Get Brexit Done’. But they did so in the full knowledge and expectation that they would seek to renegotiate what was, after all, an essential part of the Brexit treaty. Worse still, and this is a prediction, the tactic that will be employed to justify this breach of faith is to claim the Protocol was negotiated under duress.

If there was ever any doubt that Boris Johnson’s government is as mendacious, as committed to alternative facts, as that of Donald Trump, I hope I have removed it. The whole thing stinks.