This deal could have been struck in 2021 – but the last thing Brexiters wanted was to get Brexit done

Fintan O’Toole

Is the grievance factory about to shut up shop at last? The Northern Ireland protocol is the last outpost of the once mighty manufacturing empire that produced, in industrial quantities, self-pitying narratives of Britons oppressed by Brussels. Now, perhaps, that assembly line has finally juddered to a halt.
The paradox of the Brexit project for its own advocates is that its very success has cut off the pipeline of complaint that fed their teeming springs of outrage. The protocol was the last excuse for throwing the old shapes, the one remaining arena in which the grand game of Euro-bashing could be played. It is not surprising that there are those – Boris Johnson, much of the European Research Group (ERG), part of the Democratic Unionist party – who can’t bear to part with it. The most obvious thing about the deal announced at Windsor on Monday is that it shows that there was always a deal to be done. As far back as October 2021, the EU formally accepted that the way the protocol was being implemented had to be changed. It made no sense for goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland to be subjected to the same checks as those that were going on to the Republic and hence entering the EU.
Pretty much everything that has now been agreed was there to be negotiated two years ago: the sharing of advance data on exports, red and green lanes, flexibility on VAT and state aid rules, an enhanced role for the assembly in Belfast in scrutinising new single market regulations. All that was ever required was normal diplomacy at the high level and nerds lower down to do the nuts-and-bolts stuff. So why was this not done? Why was this row allowed to become a standoff that paralysed politics in Northern Ireland, when everyone knows from bitter experience that its political vacuums are filled by malign forces?
First, because of the inability of the Brexit ultras to wean themselves off the “Those Eurocrats don’t like it up ’em” mode of international relations. The complete failure of bluster and posturing in the negotiation of the overall withdrawal agreement taught them nothing. They remained convinced that the way to get foreigners to do what you want is to shout louder. Hence Boris Johnson’s idiotic Northern Ireland protocol bill. It said, in essence: scrap the protocol that Johnson himself begged you for or the UK will start a trade war with the EU, alienate the US, override its own most basic democratic procedures and declare its contempt for international law even while attacking Vladimir Putin for the same sin. This was never going to work, but it gave the zealots the thrill of one more excursion to the cliffs at Dover to shake their fists at the continent.
There was, though, an even more profound reason to avoid realistic negotiations on the protocol. The miasma of craziness that occludes this whole terrain emanates from the inconvenient truth that the protocol is, in horse-breeding parlance, by Johnson, out of the DUP. It was the DUP that made it inevitable by helping to bring down Theresa May, whose “backstop” agreement would have prevented the need for any controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea. And it was Johnson who, with his usual mastery of cynical opportunism, double-crossed the DUP, created the protocol, and used it to win an election. But all of this had to be denied. The Frankensteins had to disown their monster. And the way to do that was to indulge in the fantasy that what they had done could somehow be undone. This mirage was conjured from two impossible demands: that the protocol be scrapped and that the European court of justice should cease to be the final arbiter of EU law as it applied to Northern Ireland’s operation of the single market. The beauty of these demands, for those who wished to drown the whole story in obfuscation and amnesia, was that they were so fantastical. They pushed the reality of what Johnson and the DUP had achieved – a serious weakening of the union – into a parallel universe of high dudgeon and glorious defiance.
Rishi Sunak deserves credit for rejoining the reality-based community. The relative speed with which the deal has been done shows the benefits of trying to function like a normal government and seek mutually beneficial solutions to common problems. But part of the reality he has faced is that one part of the UK – Northern Ireland – has a very different kind of Brexit to all the others. Agreeing to make the protocol work is accepting the immutable fact that a hard Brexit means that Northern Ireland will become ever more a place apart within the UK. That’s very difficult for the DUP to accept and all the more so because it is to a very large extent its own doing. It is hard to think of a worse strategic error by any political party in these islands in modern times than the defenders of the union doing so much to undermine it. It is tough to come to terms with this outcome and reasonable to give the DUP time to adjust to the fact that it has been fighting, not a losing battle, but a battle that was irretrievably lost when it put its fate in the hands of Johnson.
Yet what alternative does it have? The deal is a very good one for Northern Ireland, most of whose people will have little patience with a rearguard action against it. Sunak has called the bluff of the DUP’s allies in the ERG and their hand is in fact very weak – not least because, in the end, few people in Britain care very much about the protocol. The prospect of a Labour government will further diminish the DUP’s influence at Westminster. The only place it can exercise power is in Belfast. The protocol deal, with its “Stormont brake” on new EU regulations, gives the assembly real powers to block EU regulations – but only if there is an assembly in the first place. There are a thousand other reasons why the DUP should fulfil its responsibilities and allow Northern Ireland’s political institutions to get back to work – but that has to be, from its own point of view, the most compelling.
Exporting Brexit grievances to Belfast was always much madder and more pernicious than sending coals to Newcastle. Northern Ireland has its own superabundant supply, flowing through both green and orange lanes. The heedless exploitation of that trade has been one of the ugliest aspects of the Brexit debacle. Now that the last drops of performative affront have been squeezed out of this tawdry drama, perhaps Britain and Ireland can get back to the slow and undramatic business of reconciliation.