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The UK approach to Northern Ireland is one of casual political vandalism

The writer was chief British negotiator in NI from 1997-2007

There could hardly be a starker contrast in negotiating approaches than we have seen this week over the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU put forward a series of detailed compromises; David Frost tried to pre-empt them by moving the goalposts as far back as possible.

After consulting businesses locally, the EU has tried to address the practical problems caused by the implementation of the protocol, spanning sausages to medicine. Meanwhile Frost raised the purely ideological issue of the role of the European Court of Justice, a body that has not caused any practical problems and is not germane to unionist complaints about the border in the Irish Sea.

The EU has also suggested ways of involving Northern Irish politicians in decisions affecting the province. This is intended to meet objections around the lack of consent to the protocol. It would have been good if the British government had discovered its interest in consent earlier: the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s population would have voted against Johnson’s Brexit deal, the Unionists because of the protocol and the majority because of Brexit itself.

The EU proposal now offers the basis for a negotiated solution to the gaps on the shelves that have riled ordinary people in Northern Ireland, but it does not solve the underlying problem of identity. Hard Brexit requires there to be a border somewhere, and the Unionists have a valid point in complaining that by putting it in the Irish Sea the government is undermining their British identity. But the only alternative is to put it on the island of Ireland and that would affect the identity of nationalists and Republicans. No one — not even the Unionists — has called for that. The border was always the insoluble problem of Brexit and it continues to be so.

Given that the British side has not put forward an alternative suggestion, we must assume that all the noise coming from their camp is just a negotiating tactic. Invoking Article 16 is not an alternative to implementing the protocol, it is just a route to yet more negotiations. Frost may be right when he says there are no dividends in endlessly talking about Brexit, but I am afraid we are condemned to many more years — probably decades — of Sisyphean negotiations with the EU.

We have seen this particular movie before. The recently published diary of Michel Barnier, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator, is replete with examples of Frost huffing and puffing and the EU staying calm and carrying on. Chances are that this is happening again and the outcome will be the same. In fact the history of the negotiations clearly demonstrates that such histrionics are completely counter-productive. They simply destroy trust, result in a worse agreement than would otherwise be possible and eventually force an embarrassing climbdown on the British side.

But there is another possibility. If the British government is really serious about refusing to implement the protocol and the border in the Irish Sea, then they risk tipping us into a full-scale trade war — and one in which the EU would retaliate against the UK as a whole. To pile this disruption on top of the existing fuel crisis, missing lorry drivers, backed up ports and shortage of agricultural workers would be an act of political suicide. I find it hard to believe that even Johnson’s government would ultimately opt for that course.

What I really object to however is the casual vandalism of the Northern Ireland peace process, something a previous generation of British politicians on both sides spent decades constructing. Dominic Cummings’ tweets reveal how little regard Johnson had for the Good Friday Agreement when it came to signing up for the Withdrawal Agreement. The prime minister continues to play politics with the peace process by using the DUP as a battering ram in negotiations with the EU. Having marched Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s leader up to the top of the hill, Johnson is now going to have to find a way to march him down again without humiliation and the risk of losing votes to his right. Donaldson will remember that Johnson left his predecessor, Arlene Foster, standing at the altar with disastrous consequences for her leadership.

The threat Brexit posed in Northern Ireland was always more political than one of returning to the Troubles. But if Donaldson goes ahead with his threat to pull out of the power-sharing executive, then it will be exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to put the institutions up again in the foreseeable future. All of this is complicated by the Unionist fear of Sinn Féin winning the elections next year and taking the first minister position. That will lead to prolonged political crisis, reduced support for the devolved institutions and probably increased support for a united Ireland.

For the sake of the peace process and the British economy, let’s hope Frost is really just bluffing yet again.

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