In wishing Foreign Secretary Liz Truss a happy and successful New Year, I want to reassure her that her new responsibility for the Northern Ireland Protocol is not a poisoned chalice but a golden opportunity to secure both the future of the Union and the continuation of the now fragile peace bought by the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
At the heart of the Belfast Agreement is the cross-community consent principle, a form of voting used in the Northern Ireland Assembly which requires the support of both main communities in Northern Ireland. In other words the majority of unionists and the majority of nationalist members of the Assembly.
But in the case of the Protocol, the cross community consent mechanism has been “disapplied” in an attempt to neutralise any Unionist effort to vote down the Protocol.
Unsurprisingly, Unionists are opposing this removal of a key element of the Agreement, and are turning against the Belfast Agreement as a whole in increasing numbers.
The instinctive feeling spreading across grassroots loyalist groups is that those who support the Union must give, and those in support of Nationalism must get what they want.
Liz Truss might also usefully look at the above situation in the context of the ongoing legal challenge to the Protocol, in which I am one of the applicants. The Government claims that the terms of the Protocol “subjugates” the Act of Union of the English and Irish crowns of 1800. The Union, as a legal construct, is the Act of Union. It follows, that by subjugating the core terms of it, Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is subjugated. If the Government can subjugate the fundamental constitutional basis of the Union and hand law-making powers to a foreign jurisdiction, without offending the principle of consent, then what meaningful protection does it really afford the Union? Rather it seems that the principle of consent has been reduced to mere symbolism.
That is bad news for Northern Ireland: I am increasingly fearful of the simmering anger amongst loyalist communities. The potential for serious violence has been underestimated. This is a dangerous moment.
So, what must Liz Truss do? Leaving Northern Ireland in the single market, would require a fundamental change to the substance of the Union which would be unacceptable to Unionists, both in England and Northern Ireland
Yes, tinkering with the trading issues at the Irish Sea border (a “solution” which has been aired) may help alleviate some of the ridiculous bureaucracy and expense for business incurred by the Protocol, but the Foreign Secretary needs to understand it will not be enough to stop growing instability. This is an issue which cannot be fudged.
In fact, there is only one way to confront these basic issues, and to resolve them to the benefit of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market, subject to EU laws and the EU court is and always will be fundamentally incompatible with being part of the United Kingdom. It really is as simple as that.
If the Prime Minister wants to protect Northern Ireland being an integral part of the United Kingdom, as he has said he does, there is only one way to secure that. The Protocol in its entirety must go.
Scrapping the Protocol is also the best way to secure continuing peace in Northern Ireland: if it is left in place and the cross-community consent principle is not reinstated, simmering loyalist tensions will surely bubble over.
Deep down, I think the Prime Minister knows that there is only one sensible way forward.
And I expect that Liz Truss, too, believing in the Union as she does, will conclude that the best and safest way to proceed is to ditch the Protocol altogether.