It says much about the level of political discourse in Britain during the period between the 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election that the Good Friday Agreement seemed to morph into whatever you wanted it to be.
The peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland had barely had a look in during the referendum campaign. But once voters decided to back a Leave vote, it assumed a new importance to the Brexit negotiations.
The EU and its allies in the defeated Remain camp decided that a “hard” Brexit – that is, one that meant Britain leaving both the single market and the customs union – would risk a return to violence if a customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was established, while the government insisted that no such border was necessary.
Many of those who, unlike the European Commission, had taken an interest in the peace process long before 2016 felt that it was unwise to use the GFA as a political football in order to gain political advantage in the ongoing talks. Suggesting publicly that a customs border would provoke retired IRA gunmen to resume their murderous activities risked providing them with justification; ignoring the problem altogether showed a lack of respect for an agreement that was hard won and which had proved hard to sustain.
Theresa May’s early attempts, as prime minister, to resolve the issue led to her own proposal of a “stop gap” status for the whole of the UK, during which time we would remain in the equivalent of the customs union. This was never going to be acceptable to the Eurosceptics on her back benches (although it remains a mystery why the Labour Party didn’t embrace this proposal wholeheartedly, given their support for a “soft” Brexit and the fatal schism that adoption of May’s plan by Parliament would have inflicted on the Conservative Party).
Then along came Boris Johnson who, seemingly magically, waved his wand and came up with a withdrawal agreement that won the approval of the House of Commons. His trick? To give in to political reality and place the trade border, not on the island of Ireland, but in the Irish Sea. While technically leaving the EU, Northern Ireland would remain, for the time being, in the customs union while the rest of the UK would leave.
It was never a happy compromise and the least happy about it were the province’s Unionist politicians, who feared what they have always feared: a slippery slope to a united Ireland.
Now, nearly a year into Britain’s new post-EU status, it’s been clear for some time that the Northern Ireland Protocol isn’t working, with delays and paperwork afflicting goods travelling both ways over the Irish Sea. Aside from the direct impact on the Northern Ireland economy, the political tensions are mounting.
Britain has made it clear that the Protocol needs amending and has even threatened to suspend it altogether. This sort of talk brings back memories of the fraught days of initial negotiations. Leo Varadkar, the former Taoiseach – now deputy prime minister – has found it easier than most to resort to childish name-calling across the border, warning the rest of the world not to do business with Britain if it’s not going to keep its word.
This sort of narrow-minded belligerence, however, doesn’t seem to be replicated in the European Commission itself. Brussels is proposing to accept changes to the Protocol which may make it easier for goods to make that short journey between Britain and Northern Ireland. If this turns out to be the case, it will in effect be a recognition that whatever support the original Protocol had on both sides of the Brexit impasse, it contained too many faults to survive for long.
One of the major demands of Lord Frost, who negotiated the deal in the first place and who remains in charge of EU relations, is the removal of the oversight role of the European Court of Justice with its replacement by an (undefined) international judicial body. Given events in the last week, where the Polish courts ruled that EU law was not, after all, supreme in that country, it seems unlikely that the commission will feel inclined to concede any more authority and sovereignty over the operation of the single market.
Still, another compromise might be in the air. We’ll know soon enough. The main lesson to be learned on both sides is that those who marry in haste can only repent at leisure. If anything can be salvaged from the Northern Ireland Protocol, and if it can be done without either side losing face and without provoking another round of protest from local politicians on either side of the sectarian divide, then it might yet preserve the good faith essential to healthy British-EU relations in future.
Even so, a messy marriage would probably have been better avoided in the first place.