It hasn’t gone away: the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol

Bobby McDonagh | Sep 2021

When Theresa May announced an unexpected general election in 2017, Brenda from Bristol went viral with her famously indignant comment: “You’re joking. Not another one”. Brenda’s exasperation reminded us of the phenomenon of boredom in politics and of its potential impact.

David Cameron’s boredom with members of his own party “banging on about Brexit” led ultimately to the disastrous referendum in 2016. When any political story has been in the public domain for a long time, people tend to switch off. However, continuing to engage with important issues, especially if they are complex and difficult, is a necessary bulwark against the rampant populism which thrives on today’s world-weariness and over-simplification.

One issue in which we should maintain a close ongoing interest is the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol. There is a risk that some may start to lose interest in it and to find any ongoing coverage of it less than riveting. However, when we read in a news story about the Protocol, we should resist the temptation to say, with Brenda from Bristol, “not another one”. We should rather remember how the Protocol came about, what is at stake and why it remains necessary.

If a degree of boredom about Protocol is beginning to set in, there are several reasons for this.

First, it is of necessity highly complicated and set out in dry legal language.

Second, negotiations on the Protocol – initially of its text and subsequently of its implementation – have been continuing for the best part of five years now.

Third, the only reasonable way forward involves practical compromise on its detailed implementation rather than the proclamation of a victory for one side or the other, even if the idea of winners and losers makes for more exciting media headlines.

Fourth, the European Union has decided, for sensible tactical reasons, that – for the coming months at least – it actually wants the negotiations to be boring. It is therefore downplaying deadlines, delaying further legal action and avoiding threats of retaliation if the Protocol is not implemented.

Fifth and finally, the UK Government, for its part, has mixed feelings on whether it wants to stimulate a high degree of public interest in the Protocol. On the one hand, its general calculation has been that high profile Brussels-bashing plays well with the British public. On the other, it may be coming to accept the reality that dramatizing an arrangement that is here to stay does not make long-term sense. It may nurture the hope – even if unrealistic – that, if the Protocol is treated in a low-key way, EU governments may eventually lose interest in it and come to accept indefinitely its inadequate implementation. Whichever approach the UK Government takes, many people, including in the UK itself, will continue to find tedious to the point boredom its constant trumpeting of an old-fashioned and unconvincing version of sovereignty to justify its stance.

The reason we must remain alert to developments on the Protocol is that the challenges posed by Brexit to the Good Friday Agreement remain precisely as they were. They cannot be made to disappear by any amount of wishful thinking, posturing or tabloid headlines.

As many voices warned during the 2016 referendum, Brexit poses a genuine conundrum for Northern Ireland. Proponents and critics of the Protocol alike now cite the balance of the Good Friday Agreement in support of their point of view. However, what is beyond doubt is that both sides, the UK Government and the EU, after spending several years trying in good faith to find a solution to the conundrum, with a view to minimizing the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement, came up with what they agreed between them was a balanced, fair and effective solution, namely the Protocol. The only serious alternative identified throughout those years, which would have seen no distinction made between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK, was rejected by the Johnson Government.

Reneging on the Protocol or failing to implement it properly would do nothing to solve the underlying and unavoidable conundrum which has been crystal clear to both sides from the outset. It would be like the players in a game of Snakes and Ladders finding themselves back at square one without the remotest idea of how to get back up the ladders.

It is very welcome that some of the heat has, temporarily at least, been taken out of the Protocol issue. However, it is important that the time and space now available be used by both sides to identify practical, reasonable and workable solutions within the terms of the Protocol. The last thing that is needed is some dramatic gesture like the triggering of Article 16 of the Protocol or threats to do so.

The key for the coming period should be to keep things boring. But not to get bored.