The time is fast approaching when the Government has to decide what to do about the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Protocol, it will be recalled, is the part of the EU Withdrawal Agreement that was put in place to ensure that an open trade border remained in Ireland, thereby, it was said, protecting the all-important Belfast-Good Friday Agreement, which has helped preserve peace in the Province for almost a quarter of a century.
Sadly, however, the Protocol has not worked in practice.
Because it provides for Northern Ireland to be treated as part of the EU’s customs territory for the purpose of trade in goods, the Protocol has effectively set up a border in the Irish Sea between constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Virtually all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain have been subjected to onerous customs checks. Foodstuffs have undergone exhaustive sanitary and phytosanitary checks, impeding the provision of supplies to Northern Ireland supermarkets.
The consequences are that there is increasing disquiet in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, there has been a diversion of established trade patterns. Northern Ireland shops have turned to sourcing their stock from the Republic, rather than from traditional suppliers in mainland UK. There have, regrettably, been outbreaks of civil disorder.
What is even worse, there is no doubt that, far from being supported, the Belfast Agreement is being undermined.
The Agreement provides, in essence, that there should be no change in constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of its people. However, Northern Ireland is effectively now a semi-detached part of the UK, its people subject in part to policy developed in Brussels and to the jurisdiction of a foreign court, the European Court of Justice. David Trimble, the Nobel prizewinning architect of the Agreement, has pointed this out very forcefully and has called for the Protocol to be abandoned.
The position, therefore, is that the Protocol has been shown to be a failed experiment and needs to be replaced. Arguments about why Parliament approved it in the first place are all very well, but are no reason to stick with a policy that so clearly doesn’t work.
Fortunately, the Protocol contains a get-out clause. Article 16 provides that if the Protocol causes societal difficulties or diversion of trade, “safeguard” measures may be put in place unilaterally by either party.
The EU recognises that the Protocol is defective; last month it proposed some relaxations on checks. However, an analysis of the documents it published in support of its offer made clear that the relaxations would be of little practical benefit.
It therefore appears that the British Government will soon invoke article 16, probably unilaterally declaring a reduced need for checks on the movement of goods between the mainland and Northern Ireland. Once it is invoked, there will be a negotiation of up to one month.
Whilst, ideally, it would be better if there were no need to trigger article 16, it is clear that the current state of affairs cannot continue.