In an astounding display of arrogance, the EU vice president Maros Sefcovic ruled out any flexibility in the application of the NI Protocol and then went on to upbraid the UK government for its failure to fully implement it. This tirade was launched even though the previous week the EU had announced that it intended to stop vaccines being exported from the Irish Republic to NI, entailing border checks to enforce this blockage in trade, which was being put in place to hide the failures of the EU Commission and its botched procurement of Covid vaccines.
He then sanctimoniously claimed that there could be no change to the Protocol because it was the only way of upholding the Good Friday Agreement and keeping the peace in NI. I do not know if his face was red with embarrassment or a cynical smile spread across his face when he spoke those words or maybe he did not even see the irony in the well-practised EU script on the NI Protocol. The one thing I do know is that it caused widespread outrage in NI.
The truth is that the NI Protocol foolishly signed by Boris Johnson and ruthlessly negotiated by the EU was never about protecting the Good Friday Agreement or maintaining peace in NI. It was all about using NI to keep the UK in the EU Single Market and the EU Customs Union. When that failed the EU decided to use the Protocol to punish the UK for daring to leave the EU.
A border has now been established between one part of the UK and the rest of the country. The UK internal market, a central pillar of the acts of union, has been broken up. One part of the UK, i.e., NI, will now have to adhere to thousands of existing EU laws and any new EU laws applied in future. Those laws will be made by a foreign authority in Brussels without any input from the UK government or the NI Assembly and will be enforced by a foreign court, the European Court of Justice.
The application of the thousands of EU laws has already caused economic havoc in NI. Consumers cannot order goods for their own personal use even though the goods are being ordered from GB. This includes everything from clothes to plants. Businesses have found that supplies have been held up for weeks and in many cases, supplies are not allowed into NI at all. Building firms bringing their machines back from contracts in GB have had the vehicles turned away from ports because there was soil on their wheels.
Customs declarations are required for the simplest of goods, adding to the cost and persuading many GB firms that selling into NI is not worth the bother. EU inspectors are now positioned at every port through which goods come into NI from GB and they have the authority to insist on how UK border officials carry out their task.
An indication of just how inflexible, draconian and petty the checks on goods coming into NI can be seen from figures available for the issuing of points of entry certificates in January 2021. Even the description points of entry certificates rankles because, of course, it indicates that as far as the EU is concerned coming into NI from GB is regarded as moving from a “third country” into the EU when of course as part of the UK, NI was supposed to have left the EU.
Anyhow across the EU and that includes massive ports such as Antwerp and Rotherham, 36,000 points of entry certificates were issued. For NI ports which would account for a fraction of a per cent of the value of EU trade from the outside world, the figure was 5,800 or 15 per cent of the total certificates. This could only have arisen because of the EU demanding checks on trade between GB and NI which far exceed the checks that it insists on from other countries across the world. An indication that the checks in the NI Protocol are not about protecting the EU internal market but are all about punishing the UK. If the NI economy is damaged through this petty and cynical behaviour, then so be it.
It is not hard to see through the EU’s claim that it wants to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, avoid a hard border between NI and the ROI, and keep the peace in NI.
Hiving NI off from the rest of the UK, imposing foreign laws, setting aside any democratic controls over those laws, rips apart the central premise of the Good Friday Agreement. The very first clause of that agreement states, “It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for that purpose”.
This is central to the agreement, yet clearly it has been ignored in the NI protocol. The Protocol makes it clear that as far as NI is concerned GB is a “third country”, which is why there are border posts, customs declarations and goods inspections. It also makes it clear that the 70 pages of EU laws listed in Annex two of the Protocol, running into hundreds of thousands of pages, take precedence over UK laws and in future laws covering 60 per cent of economic activity in NI will be made in Brussels not London. NI is no longer fully part of the UK and its status has been changed without the consent of the people as promised in the GFA.
As for ensuring peace in NI, already we have seen real anger from people who feel betrayed. Threats have been made against workers who carry out the checks at ports, causing those checks to be suspended. Given our troubled past and the continued existence of groups who have been engaged in violence in the past, if it is seen that political engagement does not work then the real danger is that frustration and anger will be channelled through violence against easily identified targets. As a unionist who has lived through the troubles in NI and knows the hurt caused to families and our image abroad, I do not want to see any return to the past.