When reality catches up with rhetoric, it can be a sobering moment, particularly in politics. There are numerous examples across the globe of politicians promising the world during election campaigns, only to find real or imagined excuses for not being able to deliver when in office. This is evident more in this age of slick political communication when, despite growing cynicism, distrust and worse about politics and politicians, hope for the larger good lies eternal, and voters continue to repose faith in new figures, newer rhetoric and more promises.
The latest example of this, it would seem, is Jacob Rees-Mogg, a minister in the Boris Johnson government responsible for the portfolio of Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency. Rooted firmly in the Brexit camp before and after the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, he is among the leading lights who would imperiously reject claims of the Remain camp that leaving the EU would make the country poorer. Johnson and fellow Brexiteers successfully sold the Brexit dream before the 2019 election, with promises of many free trade agreements across the globe, independence from Brussels’ bureaucracy, and other freedoms.
But on a recent visit to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone, Rees-Mogg announced that the government was again delaying imposing border checks as part of the post-Brexit trade arrangement between Britain and Northern Ireland (called ‘Protocol’) because, as he admitted, enforcing the checks “would have been an act of self-harm”, a remark that delighted the Remain camp (the pro-Remain sentiment remains strong, particularly in London).
For the UK and EU, Northern Ireland is a sensitive place, geographically, historically, as well as politically. Look up a map of the UK, recall recent history and you realise the challenge of implementing an international treaty over two islands and two countries with overlapping jurisdictions, tied together in many knots. The island of Ireland comprises the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (part of the UK), while Britain (England, Wales, Scotland) is the other island. The Republic of Ireland is in the EU, while the UK (including Northern Ireland) is out of it, which means EU laws should no longer apply in the entire UK after Brexit.
But it is not only geography that complicates Northern Ireland’s situation after Brexit: there is the long history of clashes between Irish nationalists, who seek unification with the Republic of Ireland, and loyalists, who insist on remaining within the UK. After years of conflict called The Troubles, the Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998, which is a key factor in the post-Brexit scenario. That agreement has since ensured peace and power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly, besides obliterating a land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Protocol is part of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, an international treaty between the UK and EU which sets out how the UK’s exit from the EU would work. The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 and the Protocol came into force on 1 January 2021. In some areas, Northern Ireland continues to follow EU rules, even while being part of the UK. The Protocol ensures that there are no checks on goods that move between Northern Ireland and Ireland (and the rest of the EU). It does this by applying the EU’s Single Market rules for goods to Northern Ireland, and the EU’s customs rules. This means that goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain must be checked and/or have paperwork to show they comply with the EU regulations – a position strongly opposed by the loyalist groups in Northern Ireland. So far, the checks on goods stipulated under the Protocol have not been fully implemented, with the UK announcing ‘grace periods’. Rees-Mogg announced fourth such period when he made that “self-harm” admission.
Add the result of the May 5 election to the 90-member Northern Ireland Assembly and you get another layer to the imbroglio. Sinn Féin won the most seats (27), the first time a nationalist party became the largest single party. The other main nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, gained eight seats. The loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which campaigned on a pledge of removing the Protocol since it believes the Protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK, won 25 seats. During the 2016 referendum, Sinn Féin campaigned to remain in the EU, while the DUP campaigned to leave the EU. The Assembly met on 13 May, but the DUP blocked the election of the speaker and deputies; it also refused to nominate ministers until its concerns about the Protocol are resolved. The democratic mandate is that most parties are in favour of the Protocol in its present or modified form.
But on May 17, the UK Government announced plans to introduce legislation to change the Protocol, which has infuriated EU leaders. As Leo Varadkar, who as the Irish prime minister negotiated the pathway that led to the Protocol, says: “The fact that the UK government has talked openly about breaching international law is a matter of concern and contrasts with the leadership that it has shown for Ukraine, supporting the country against Russia’s invasion, which has breached international law in a very serious way”. So, another phase of tense negotiations between London and Brussels are set to begin, even though Johnson insists that there is “a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected”.
Zoom out of Northern Ireland and you see more concerns over Brexit’s wider impact. The publicly-funded Office for Budget Responsibility believes that the long-term impact will be more than twice as great as the Covid-19 pandemic. It assesses that Brexit will reduce the UK’s productivity, and hence GDP per capita, by 4 per cent, while the impact of Covid on GDP will only be 2 per cent, with a slightly smaller impact on GDP per capita. The knots over Northern Ireland are currently hogging headlines, but there is already a growing drumbeat across various business sectors of problems imposed by extra bureaucracy, acute shortage of manpower, supply chain issues and extra costs on EU-related import and export. Throw in the growing public ennui over the rising cost of living and conditions likely to be exacerbated by Brexit, and you get the makings of another summer of discontent.
The writer is a senior journalist
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