The Real “Problem” With the NI Protocol: It Works Too Well

The Protocol’s critics hate it for its success, not its failure. And they’re prepared to eviscerate the Good Friday Agreement to protect their political projects.

The government’s “Northern Ireland Protocol Bill”Many people’s worst fears were confirmed. It violates international law, thus stymieing negotiations on trade agreements, emboldening autocrats in China and Russia, and (potentially) permanently damaging the UK’s global standing. It gives the government the power to govern Northern Ireland without the need for parliament. It is based on the lie that the Protocol is bad and could endanger the Good Friday Agreement. Amazingly, this lie has not been challenged. The Protocol is actually both beneficial for and popular in Northern Ireland.

Understanding the Protocol is essential to understanding the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement ended a conflict that was as much about identity than politics. The Good Friday Agreement is intended to reduce political tensions as well as reconcile opposing identities. It recognizes that citizens of Northern Ireland may consider themselves British, Irish or both. This was given practical effect through the free-movement rights guaranteed by the UK and Ireland’s EU membership. The Good Friday Agreement also enshrines Northern Ireland’s right to self-determination, requiring the UK government to hold a referendum there appears to be popular support for re-unification with the Republic. This agreement places the decision on personal and national identity in the hands the Northern Irish people.

Brexit presented a significant challenge to the Good Friday Agreement. It revoked the agreement’s free movement rights. The Protocol attempts to mitigate this by (in essence) allowing Northern Ireland remain in the single marketplace. The trade-off is that all goods and services from non-EU countries (including the UK) must be subject to customs inspections. The Protocol maintains the Good Friday Agreement’s respect for Northern Irish self-determination, providing for the elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote on whether it should remain in place after 2024. While the Protocol is not a perfect solution, it alleviates some of the most serious Brexit problems and, crucially preserves both the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and its letter.


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The Protocol has been a huge success. Northern Irish citizens continue to enjoy many of EU citizenship’s benefits while remaining in the UK. Consequently, Northern Ireland’s economy hit a 13-year peak in 2021.  It continues to growWhile the rest of the UK is heading towards recession. The UK average is experiencing four times the growth in manufacturing jobs. The Protocol has facilitated an additional £1bn of trade with the Republic alone (while costing just £200m in total). Ironically most businesses report that the real economic danger comes from the uncertainty generated byWestminster and DUP politicians’grandstanding on the Protocol.

Unsurprisingly, the Protocol is very popular with the Northern Irish population. Most want it to continue after 2024. .

Why, then, is the UK government gambling the UK’s international reputation (and the DUP gambling its political future) to overturn something that works?

For both, the Protocol’s successthreatens their political projects. Brexit is the government’s signature political achievement. It has spent much of the time since pretending that it’s inevitable consequences (lorry queues across Kent, chaos at airports, and the worst economic performance in the G20 except for Russia) are not happening. This lie is exposed by Northern Ireland, which serves as a constant reminder of how things might be if the UK hadn’t left the EU.

The DUP’s raison d’etreIs keeping Northern Ireland as close as possible to the UK. Brexit, which was supported by the DUP, offered the possibility of severeding relations between the Republic of Northern Ireland and the Republic. Instead, the Protocol preserves and arguably strengthens these connections. The greater the threat to the DUP, the more Northern Irish people will benefit from their relationship. After only two years of Brexit, polls on both sides of the borderfuelled speculation about a re-unification referendum in the next decade – the ultimate failure of the DUP’s project.

Both the UK government as well as the DUP have made it a political imperative to end the Protocol. Contrary to their protestations, they’re sacrificing the Good Friday Agreement to do it. Protocol Bill takes a coach and horses to the Good Friday Agreement’s core. It removes the principle of self-determination. Instead of allowing Stormont to make its own decisions, it imposes the will of Westminster (regardless the wishes of the Northern Irish people). It renders the Northern Irish citizens’ right to choose their identity meaningless by closing the North/South frontier. It mocks power-sharing democracy, by forcing the DUP to enforce its demands against the will of the majority of voters.

In an age dominated by misinformation, the government’s big lie about the Protocol could be the most catastrophic yet. In order to protect their political interests, the government will impose a (likely) recession upon the Northern Irish people and end the agreement that has ensured peace for the past twenty years. The price will be paid by the Northern Irish people, not the Protocol’s critics. It may be a rerun of the Troubles.

 

Sam Fowles, a barrister and lecturer on law at St Edmund Hall University of Oxford, is Sam Fowles. His book, Overruled: Confronting our Vanishing Democracy in 8 CasesAvailable to pre-order now, the book will be out June 23rd. He tweets @SamFowles