The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons last Monday. The Bill seeks to ease the delays on goods being brought from Great Britain into Northern Ireland by ensuring only those destined for the Republic are checked when they arrive on the island. On the surface, the proposals might seem modest enough, but in truth the Bill is likely to fundamentally alter, once again, the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom – as well as having considerable implications for UK relations with the EU and its member states, and the international standing of the UK.
The current government has made a habit of rushing through measures that might address short-term political concerns but that have the potential to generate more serious underlying difficulties in the process. The reason that the UK government judges it necessary to introduce the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is as a consequence of the Protocol, hastily agreed with the European Union as a means of of averting an impending no-deal exit. It should have been abundantly clear that this proposed solution to the questions Brexit raised regarding the status of Northern Ireland would be unpalatable to many unionists, not least the Democratic Unionist Party. Initially, Boris Johnson sought to deal with this issue by denying that the Protocol would entail checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. But the reality of its operation made this position unsustainable; and his previous denials likely aggravated unionist opinion further. It is a cause for concern, then, that the government’s response is to introduce a further poorly considered set of provisions, this time without the agreement of the EU.
Speaking during the debate last Monday, the Conservative MP and chair of the Northern Ireland affairs committee, Simon Hoare, argued that alongside being ill-considered, the Protocol Bill was also a power grab, with 17 different “Henry VIII clauses” designed to take power away from parliament and hand it to the Executive. This was not, in Hoare’s opinion at least, what “taking back control” meant.
Elsewhere, former Prime Minister Tereasa May was also critical. May suggested the Bill was likely in breach of international law and that beyond this it would “diminish the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world”.Certainly, the Bill hasn’t done anything to strengthen the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
Owing to its close economic ties, the latter has spent much of the Brexit negotiations attempting to facilitate discussions between the EU and the UK government, but the patience of the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, appears to have snapped over the new Bill. Coveney recently took to Twitter where his arguments mirrored those made by May and Hoare in the chamber. Coveney believes that in introducing the Protocol Bill, the UK government will be engaging in what he calls a ‘unilateral action’ in breach of international law. In this case, the issue appears to be that Johnson’s government is willing to reverse, or at least sidestep, its commitments to international treaties.
It seems unlikely that senior figures from within government will be swayed by the criticisms of Simon Coveney or the back benches, though. For Boris Johnson and his Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, signalling their commitment to the Union is important. With taxes rising in response to the pandemic, the leadership of the Conservative and Unionist Party perceives a need to demonstrate it remains unionist, even if it cannot always be fiscally conservative. Ongoing positioning on a future Scottish Independence Referendum confirms this point, but in essence the Protocol and its knock-on effects in Northern Irish politics demand a Conservative response in parliament.
Beyond this, both Johnson and Truss have recently stressed that they believe that in its present state the Protocol endangers hard-won peace in Northern Ireland. Both are keen to suggest too that the checks on goods which they helped instate undermine the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. That their action over this has infuriated the Irish government, co-signatories and enforces of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, seems not to matter to them.
Such is cut and thrust of international diplomacy and domestic politics. What is perhaps more significant, though, is the new Bill’s constitutional resonance and its place in a history of ill-considered parliamentary interventions on Northern Ireland. Since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1999, there have been several minor modifications to the Agreement and to the union itself. Unlike the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006, though, recent tussles with the European Union have seen ad hoc alterations to Northern Ireland’s status.
As support for Sinn Fein grows and unionism splinters, this is bound to exacerbate existing insecurities. That the government have proceeded along without any meaningful consultation of the people who live in Northern Ireland is even worse. While the Democratic Unionist Party have tentatively supported the principle of the Bill, opinion research suggests that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland do not. This is far from government by consent, and instead appears to be an increasingly desperate attempt to sure up Johnston and Truss’ unionist credentials.
Northern Irish politics has long been a place of contradictions. What seems stone one day may change to water the next, but one thing which remains constant is a suspicion that Westminster rarely has the interests of the place at heart. With Stormont suspended, trust in the institutions of government in Northern Ireland is as important as ever. By the introduction of ill-conceived constitutional changes, by redrawing and redefining borders on or around Ireland at will, be it with the Withdrawal Agreement or the new Protocol Bill, Johnson’s government threatens to erode trust in government institutions still further.
This is not a doom-laden prophecy that Northern Ireland will return to the violence of the modern ‘Troubles’, but rather, it is to point out that at a moment of acute political tension, constitutional ad-libbing is ill-advised to say the least. Regardless of the effect of the Protocol on trade into Northern Ireland, the legacy of this Bill may well be a further lathing off of support for Westminster. Unionists still represent the largest voting block in Northern Ireland, but this lead is reducing. If the government wants to retain Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, it would do well to consult its people on the Protocol and to pursue a policy considered amendment, rather than engage in increasingly desperate manoeuvres as it attempts to escape tailspin.
Dexter Govan is the communications manager and researcher of the Constitution Society. He holds a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and is a historian of unionism in Britain and Ireland.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.