The EU’s impulsive decision to trigger Article 16 over vaccines to UK has irked the Conservative government and aggravated the political debate.
The border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, that was created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the Republic of Ireland (RoI), has been a source of angst and drama. The EU’s impulsive decision to trigger Article 16 over vaccines to UK has irked the Conservative government and aggravated the political debate. In return, Boris Johnson also threatened the use Article 16 to keep goods flowing freely.
Everyone knew the NI Protocol was what is known in political circles as a “fudge”. As the deadline of 31 December 2020 approached, everyone was desperate to get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. A process that temporarily suspends the Protocol named Article 16 was introduced as a game changer, allowing either side to act unilaterally, but only once all other dispute resolution measures had failed—this is what the EU did but without trying the other measures and crucially without notifying the UK.
The EU’s action and the hold-ups in goods travelling from Britain to Ireland have prematurely showcased the flaws in the NI Protocol. The hold-ups are due to the increased and complex paperwork and administration associated with the border in the Irish Sea; some suppliers have been ill prepared and there is a lack of British officials on the ground in NI facilitating swift transit through the ports. The EU want to check all the trucks from Britain for non-compliant goods that may be going on to the Republic; EU have officials operating in NI, advising and educating on biological and sanitary regulations. Some call this a de facto embassy.
The Irish Sea Border has enraged the Unionist and Loyalist community. The NI police picked up the growing hostility; the department responsible for customs officials’ safety felt the later were in danger, to the extent that the customs officials at ports were removed from duty. The current sanitary and phytosanitary checks on food and agricultural products have been suspended.
Arlene Foster, First Minister of NI, claims “Northern Ireland is suffering real economic and societal difficulties as a consequence of the Northern Ireland Protocol operating and creating new barriers to unfettered trade within the United Kingdom and disrupting supply lines of goods to Northern Ireland”. The key words here are “economic and societal” this is the language used in the text of Protocol for Article 16, which states “If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.”
According to Jamie Bryson, a Loyalist activist, the tension and atmosphere is getting worse and resolution cannot come soon enough. He said, “The border is between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; the Unionist community in NI will never accept a border that divides NI and GB. If checks are necessary then they should be on the land border.”
As the ghost of a hard border between NI and RoI wafts over the island, it is incumbent on Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Maroš Šefčovič, Vice President of European Commission (EC), and their appointed teams to rebuild an element of trust and good relations, and not let down their allies in NI. Gove has demanded of the EC to extend the current trading arrangement until January 2023. This date dodges the NI Assembly elections in May 2022. All international eyes will be on the spirit and extent of cooperation, all sides could curb the hubris so the bad vibes do not overflow into other international spheres of shared interest, such as foreign policy, climate change and security.
And there are more Celtic woes, Boris Johnson’s trip to Scotland was not the resounding success anticipated. Bolstering support for the Tory party and the Union was the desired outcome before the Scottish Parliament election in May 2021. The PM’s visit was mired by Scottish Nationalist accusations of “non-essential travel” and demands for a second Scottish Independence Referendum. Resulting in much negative publicity surrounding Luke Graham’s, the chief advisor on the Union, indignant resignation over the PM’s Union strategy. Graham is replaced by Oliver Lewis, a reliable character from the Vote Leave Campaign, whose work is cut out for him in the face of impending SNP (Scottish National Party) electoral gains.