It was never likely that the Government’s efforts to negotiate away the worst aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU would come to anything. Since the referendum, Brussels has sought to weaponise the delicate politics of the province in its attempts to stop a proper Brexit. Its obsession with procedure and bureaucracy, allied with its ideological commitment to protecting the “integrity” of the single market, has prevented it from making the common-sense and pragmatic changes that are clearly necessary.
There can be little doubt that the protocol is undermining Northern Ireland’s place within the Union. Irish Sea checks have resulted in trade diversion, making it harder for the province’s businesses to sell into Great Britain, and vice versa. The Unionist backlash has broken Northern Ireland’s fragile political balance, with the DUP refusing to enter power-sharing with Sinn Fein without changes to the protocol. There are fears of a return to violence. The EU’s claims to be protecting the Good Friday Agreement would be absurd if the situation were not so precarious.
The Government says it is serious about fixing this mess. Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, indicated yesterday that ministers now have no choice but to act, after the breakdown of talks with Maroš Sefčovič, the chief EU negotiator. The Government could invoke Article 16, a safeguard clause, which Brussels itself briefly triggered during the row over vaccines. Alternatively, legislation could be introduced at Westminster to override significant parts of the protocol.
There would be retaliation. Senior EU figures have even threatened to suspend the entire post-Brexit trade deal, which would inevitably compound the economic crises that are affecting both Britain and the continent. But there was never going to be a good moment to resolve this, and the suggestion that doing so now, as war rages in Ukraine, would somehow play into Vladimir Putin’s hands is ridiculous. Britain does not need to prove its commitment to the Western alliance to countries like Germany or France, which have done far less to aid Kyiv.
If the Government has indeed concluded that the talks have failed and it will have to take unilateral action, then it should get on with it. Northern Ireland deserves better than bluster and rhetoric, or to yet again become a tool in some great political game. Ministers should act to protect the province’s place in the United Kingdom.