Conflict Alerts # 522, 15 June 2022
In the news
On 13 June, the UK government published the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, to be debated and voted on by Parliament. The legislation is aimed at fixing parts of the existing Northern Ireland Protocol, in order to safeguard the institutional autonomy ensured by the Good Friday Agreement. According to the press release from the foreign, commonwealth, and development office of Elizabeth Truss, the bill will allow the government to address practical problems in four areas: burdensome customs processes, inflexible regulation, tax and spend discrepancies, and democratic governance issues.
On 15 June, Brussels urged Westminster to “throw out the illegal” attempt by Boris Johnson to unilaterally rewrite the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, as the EU launches legal action against the UK. The EU’s Brexit commissioner, Maroš Šefčovič said “let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.” Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, described his most recent call with Johnson as the worst of his political career. Miguel Berger, Germany’s ambassador to the UK, warned that countries such as China and Russia would be looking “very closely” at Britain’s stance on international law.
Issues at large
First, the bill in brief. The new bill introduces the concept of green lanes and red lanes for trade between Great Britain and the EU. This indicates that goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland (NI) would use a green lane with minimal to no checks. While goods moving from Britain through NI into Ireland or the wider European Union would use a red lane and continue to be checked at NI ports. Any trade disputes would then be resolved by “independent arbitration,” and not by the European Court of Justice as Northern Ireland would continue to receive same tax breaks as in the UK.
Second, another challenge for Boris Johnson. The new bill comes in the immediate background where PM Boris Johnson survived a no-confidence vote for violating covid protocols. Called the Partygate affair, Johnson barely toppled a Tory rebellion as he brings in the next challenge of being accused of “rule-breaking over the rule of law.” However, till 16 June, around 148 Conservative MPs who voted against Johnson’s leadership in the no-confidence motion decided not to criticise Johnson’s NI legislation, which has garnered a stark response from Ireland and the EU.
Third, political deadlock in Northern Ireland. The bill also aims to solve the political deadlock in Northern Ireland where a new executive head is yet to be nominated since the May elections. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to nominate a deputy First Minister to Sinn Fein’s First Minister and return the power-sharing executive until changes are made to the protocol. At the same time, a majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly signed a joint letter to the prime minister stating their opposition to the proposed legislation to amend the protocol.
Fourth, a no-go with EU. Brussels has held back on taking targeted action over the new legislation and has continued to launch fresh legal actions. Amendments to the Northern Ireland protocol could take 18 months or longer. As Šefčovič said, “renegotiating the protocol” that has already been agreed upon was "unrealistic."
First, the bill creates more problems than solves any. With new legal action against the UK, a return to the negotiating table would mean only after a trade conflict with the EU. With more paperwork for the business groups and confusion over imports of essential medical goods, the new bill is more politically motivated than an economic relief. The lane concept in the bill is similar to those tabled by the European Commission for an “express lane”. Thus, “getting Brexit done” is now being unravelled by the Tories themselves. Second, is the return of the debate on saving the Good Friday Agreement. The bill has shown that the withdrawal agreement with the old NI Protocol and Good Friday Agreement cannot coexist.