Commission approves €10 million Irish support measure for fishery sector in the context of Brexit

The controversial Northern Ireland Protocol which is part of the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement, shows no sign of resolving itself any time soon. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, the European Commission is unwilling to back down while the British continue to search for an opening to get themselves out of an agreed document that they themselves hailed last December. It’s seven months since the British government boasted of a great deal when Brexit was formally signed and sealed in Brussels with smiles and pre-Christmas cheer all round. As UK chief negotiator Lord David Frost tweeted on Christmas Eve 2020: “I’m very pleased and proud to have led a great UK team to secure today’s excellent deal with the EU.

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“Both sides worked tirelessly day after day in challenging conditions to get the biggest and broadest deal in the World, in record time.

Thank you all who made it happen.” One might think reading his words that the British government were hoping to live happily ever after once the deal was done. However, all is not going to plan.

Under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is an annex to the EU/UK accord, created a new trading arrangement between GB and Northern Ireland which, although being on the island of Ireland, is actually in the United Kingdom.

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The objective of the Protocol is that certain items being moved from GB to NI such as eggs, milk and chilled meats amongst others, must undergo port checks in order to arrive on to the island of Ireland from where they can be sold locally or moved on to the Republic, which remains in the European Union. As working class protestant unionists or British loyalists in Northern Ireland see it, the Protocol or notional trade border in the Irish Sea, amounts to another incremental step towards a united Ireland-which they vehemently oppose-and marks further isolation from Britain where their loyalty is to. Former Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Edwin Poots said the Protocol has put “absurd barriers placed on trade with our biggest market [GB]”.

A grace period from 1 January to 30 June was agreed to allow for the measures to come in to effect but such has been the hostility in Northern Ireland towards the Protocol, that period has now been extended until the end of September in order to find ways for acceptable compromise to keep all sides happy! The Protocol and its implications which, it seems, Britain didn’t think through, has angered members of the unionist community so much in Northern Ireland, protests on the streets every other night since early Summer, have become a common sight. Such is the sense of betrayal towards London over the Protocol, British loyalists have threatened to take their protests to Dublin in the Irish republic, a move many would see as provoking an excuse for violence.

Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson speaking on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk Radio in Dublin recently said: “Save for there being a quite remarkable turnaround in terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the coming weeks… I would imagine most definitely those protests will be taken south of the border, certainly following 12 July.”

12 July, a date seen in Northern Ireland as marking the peak of the Orange Order marching season, has come and gone. So far, those opposed to the Protocol in Northern Ireland have yet to cross the border that separates northern from southern Ireland.

However, with pressure mounting on the Government in London from British unionists in Northern Ireland and traders who feel their businesses will suffer greatly when the full contents of the Protocol document come in to effect, Lord Frost has been trying desperately to amend and soften the deal he negotiated and praised to the max last December. The same deal, it should be added, was passed in the House of Commons by 521 votes to 73, a sign perhaps that the British Government didn’t perform its due diligence! Among the visible consequences of Brexit in Northern Ireland are long delays for truck drivers at ports with some major supermarkets chains complaining of empty shelves.

The feeling in Dublin is that if COVID-19 measures were not in place, the real true consequences of Brexit would likely be more harsh in Northern Ireland than they already are. With pressure on Lord Frost to sort out this political dilemma as soon as possible, he told the Westminster parliament last week, “we can not go on as we are”. Publishing what was titled ‘A Command Paper’, it brazenly went on to say, “the involvement of the EU in policing the deal just “engenders mistrust and problems”.

The Paper even suggested the abolition of blanket customs paperwork for traders selling from Great Britain into NI. Instead, a “trust and verify” system, dubbed an “honesty box”, would apply, whereby traders would register their sales in a light-touch system allowing inspection of their supply chains, a suggestion which, no doubt, sent smugglers to bed with a smile on their face! The very suggestion of an “honesty box” must have sounded amusing and ironic in Northern Ireland where in 2018, Boris Johnson promised delegates at the DUP annual conference that “there would be no border in the Irish Sea” only for him to subsequently go back on his word!

With EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen confirming last week to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there will be no re-negotiation of the Agreement, the UK side looks set to make itself ultra unpopular again with the protestant unionist and Irish nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. With British protestant unionists in Northern Ireland angry over the Protocol, Irish catholic nationalists are also furious with London after the Secretary of State for NI Brandon Lewis announced proposals to cease all investigations in to murders committed during the Troubles prior to 1998. If implemented, the families of those that died at the hands of British soldiers and security services would never ever get justice while those that died from actions carried out by UK loyalists and Irish republicans would suffer the same fate.

The Taoiseach Micheal Martin speaking in Dublin said “the British proposals were unacceptable and amounted to betrayal [to the families].” With US President Joe Biden, a man of Irish heritage, saying last year that he will not sign a trade deal with the UK if London does anything to undermine the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, the Boris Johnson administration, it seems, has a dwindling number of friends in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Dublin and Washington. Talks to review the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol look set to resume in the coming weeks.

With the EU signalling it is unwilling to budge and the US administration siding with Dublin, London finds itself in a difficult dilemma which will require something remarkable to escape from.

As one caller to a Dublin radio phone-in programme remarked last week on the issue: “Somebody should tell the British that Brexit has consequences.

You get what you vote for.”