Sausage wars leave bitter taste

25 Jun 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Jun 2021

Pic: Harry Knight, Unsplash

The imbroglio of the Northern Ireland protocol has served to demonstrate just how important EU membership was to the peace process – and the scale of the instability we now face.

To understand this it is worth reminding ourselves that one of the founding principles of what evolved into the European Union was to end conflict in the region after centuries of warfare.

Britain and Ireland both joined the Common Market in 1973 with relations fragile, scarred both by past enmity and the conflict in the north then spiraling out of control. 

Yet they also found that they had plenty of common ground within the European union as island members on the fringe of the continent. In the years that followed there was a gradual thawing of the relationship and the two nations were able to work together on the peace process, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the moving symbolism of the queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 as guest of President McAleese.

That common purpose has been put under strain by Brexit and the strong relationships carefully nurtured by both governments have deteriorated with trust in short supply.

But that’s only part of the damage.

In her 2017 letter which triggered Article 50, which started the process of leaving the EU Theresa May wrote: “We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries, to be able to maintain the Common Travel Area between us, and to make sure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland. We also have an important responsibility to make sure that nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland, and to continue to uphold the Belfast Agreement.”

These were worthy sentiments but they did not address what for the prime mover of the peace process – the late John Hume – was the main function of the EU in embedding peace.

Hume had a vision for Ireland within an evolving Europe, where national boundaries did not seem as important.  His idea was that as people saw themselves more and more as Europeans it was possible to be British or Irish, and European in the same territorial space. Over time traditional animosities would fade as people became comfortable with a different view of national and cultural identity. It wasn’t even necessary to understand what was happening to be influenced by this process.

Resolution to the conflict in Ireland would therefore not have winners and losers. Instead geographical boundaries would not matter so much any longer. Free trade, free travel, a common Human Rights system, the same currency, increasingly similar laws and regulations have brought former enemies on the continent together. It is inconceivable, for example, that France and Germany will ever go to war again over Alsace Lorraine, a region fought over for centuries, and now the location of the European parliament.

This will not now come to pass. So if not through the EU, how else might we resolve conflict and help people from different traditions become more comfortable with and less threatened by each other?

There is no evidence that either side in the protocol negotiations has given that serious thought – not just in their respective conduct in negotiations, but more broadly in how the protocol has been devised.

First on the negotiations both sides need to move – and fast.

This is a shared responsibility. For the Europeans it means moving away from the heavy-handedness displayed to date. Its need to protect the single market should be balanced against the need to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. Both of these aims are laid out in the wording of the protocol after all. Applying processes designed for international trade to supermarket supply chains within a state is not appropriate. 

It also needs to be reminded that its appalling aborted move to block vaccine supplies to NI in January is what triggered the DUP to adopt its current stance on the protocol – so it has some responsibility for the resulting political crisis.

For the British it means demonstrating flexibility too. Currently it has a red line around complete regulatory autonomy. It needs to buy further time, through agreement so that more work can be done on the unique situation of Northern Ireland and bespoke solutions – perhaps involving trusted trader schemes - can be devised and agreed.

Unilaterally walking away from aspects of it is not the answer – not just because of the implications of breaking an international treaty but also because of the impact it would have on non-unionists.

This is not about sausages. Northern Ireland already has so many pigs that we’re having to export a third of the resulting excrement (much of it to England). Resolving the current problems is only the start – the nature of the protocol mean that there are many more to come.

Whilst the Hume vision is predicated on difference dissolving over time the protocol will be voted on by the NI assembly every four to eight years, reopening the possibility of a land border in Ireland – and given that votes will be split on community lines it will be a destabilising factor for the foreseeable future. The petition of concern mechanism will not be available for such votes – a simple majority will decide.

Furthermore there is no precedent for a similar agreement anywhere else in the world. Therefore problems which were not envisaged when the protocol was devised are inevitable. Resolving them at pace will require a degree of trust which has not been manifest to date.

Just ignoring aspects that Northern Ireland ministers do not like cannot be an option. Our administration has just as much an obligation to abide by international treaties as the Westminster government.

The Institute of Government has provided a very useful guide to the implications of the protocol. It  states: “A failure to give effect to an international treaty will have serious reputational consequences for the devolved governments and lead to a risk particularly that Northern Ireland will be seen as a “cowboy state”

This does not just apply now but in the future too. EU law in protocol areas will continue to apply in NI. Therefore every time relevant EU laws are amended or updated Northern Ireland will have to apply them. And as EU and UK law diverges over time this means divergence between NI and the rest of the UK, posing potential future problems for the UK internal market.

This will make it imperative that the Northern Ireland administration both finds the resources to scrutinise potential changes to EU law and examine their impact on the workings of the protocol. It will also need to find the means to lobby and influence the EU. This is likely to be painful for unionists as the most effective means to do that would be through the Irish government which, unlike NI, is a member of the EU and can directly influence it.

Similarly whilst some potential EU changes will affect matters controlled by NI’s devolved government, others will affect reserved functions controlled by Westminster. How these will be scrutinised when we have so few MPs is yet another interesting challenge.

There are significant economic benefits to the protocol  and not just for local pig farmers. Having access to both the EU and UK markets should provide local business with significant growth potential as well as a magnet for inward investment. Indeed Invest NI is already hard at work marketing the opportunities.  To date there has not been nearly enough debate of the benefits and their potential for transforming our economy.

But what’s needed more than anything is trust, mutual goodwill and an acceptance by all parties of the scale of the risks now faced and a willingness to work through them. That will require flexibility and the age-old solution to problems in this part of the world: fudge.




The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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