by Frank Schnittger
Thu Nov 4th, 2021 at 08:41:10 PM EST
Growing fears that British government will shortly invoke article 16 of protocol
There are growing fears in Dublin and Brussels that the British government will shortly invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, a move that officials say would plunge EU-UK relations, and British-Irish ties, into deep crisis.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin issued an unprecedentedly blunt warning to the British government in the Dáil on Wednesday, describing any move to trigger article 16 as "irresponsible . . . unwise . . . reckless", and saying that it would have "far-reaching implications" for the relationship between Dublin and London.
However, Irish officials fear that the triggering of article 16 could rupture relations between the two sides and lead to retaliatory action from the EU, ultimately triggering suspension of the free trade agreement and the introduction of tariffs between the EU and UK.
Whatever reasons the UK may put forward for triggering Article 16, they have little to do with any real difficulties with the protocol or with what the people of Northern Ireland actually want.
A Northern Irish newspaper, The Irish News has just printed my letter to the editor in full as their lead letter on their letters page:
Is there no low to which Boris Johnson's government cannot sink?
The disconnect between British British government policy and rhetoric and what the people of Northern Ireland actually want grows ever wider.
The ground is shifting under Lord Frost's feet, and he doesn't have a democratic leg to stand on in his stand-off with the EU (not that he was ever elected to anything in the first place).
A survey carried out by pollster LucidTalk for a Queen's University study has found that 52 per cent of Northern Ireland adults think the Protocol is, on balance, "a good thing" for Northern Ireland, compared with 43 per cent in a similar survey in June. The percentage of respondents who agreed the Protocol provided Northern Ireland with a "unique set of post-Brexit economic opportunities" that could be beneficial also rose to 62 per cent, compared with 57 per cent in June. Even more remarkably, 87 per cent of respondents said they distrusted the British government's ability to manage Northern Ireland's interests regarding the Protocol. With the DUP currently languishing at 13 per cent in the polls, it means that virtually every single adult in Northern Ireland bar their allies, the DUP, now distrusts the British government.
The British government is delaying legislation, agreed by all the northern parties, which would make it more difficult to collapse the power sharing institutions. In Newton Emerson's view (October 28) this is so that they can use the threat of a collapse of the institutions as an excuse to trigger Article 16 of the Protocol in their dispute with the EU.
Naomi Long has testified to a Westminster parliamentary committee that the Johnson government is using Northern Ireland as a political football in its dispute with the EU, while Alexandra Hall Hall, the lead Brexit envoy to the US, quit her job because she was unwilling to "peddle half-truths on behalf of a government I do not trust" and which had instructed her to downplay the consequences of Brexit for the delicate peace process in Northern Ireland.
That the British government could play fast and loose with the Belfast Agreement institutions in a bid to further its dispute with the EU on entirely spurious grounds is a measure of just how despicable these people are.
That even most unionists now believe they are being used in a dispute not of their making shows how transparent and obvious this perfidy has become. Is there no low to which Boris Johnson's government cannot sink?
An edited version of the letter above was also published by the Irish Independent as their lead letter and remains one of the most read letters on their letters page a week after being published.
An independent Northern Ireland politic website, Slugger O'Toole today published a report which also pointed to a growing consensus within Northern Ireland in favour of the Protocol. (I have queried them as to why the report has since been taken down). [Update: SluggerO'Toole have published a new report on the survey here]
There is inter-community consensus for the NI Protocol mitigations proposed by the EU and UK government according to a new survey undertaken by the University of Liverpool.
Indeed, the survey completed in mid to late October 2021 and comprising over 1000 participants across all council areas, not only showed wide-ranging agreement for pragmatic solutions, it indicated that the Protocol is simply not a top priority for most people in Northern Ireland.
This will be sobering reading for those who have sought to either raise tensions, make political capital or exaggerate community discord over an issue that has dominated our political debates and news channels over the last year.
Professor Peter Shirlow Director of the Institute of Irish Studies, who led the study, commented,
`It is evident that respondents seek proportionality in North-South and East-West trade relationships. There is no evidence here of mass rejection, even among unionists, of the mitigations/easements advanced by the EU. Similarly, there is no nationalist/republican rejection of key UK government proposals. This is not what is assumed within media and political commentary.'
Professor Shirlow goes on to describe the deep-seated healing process that is currently taking place and highlight the risks of reading too much into simplified social media comment on the subject, he said,
`The inter-community consensus located within this report is a point of renewal for ongoing mitigations, and confirmation that resolution will further develop that societal consensus and social cohesion. Complex issues cannot be reduced to sound bites, Tweets and headlines.'
Interestingly, the survey data also indicated that there is little evidence that would support invoking Article 16 for reasons of inter-community strife.
The UK government has continually threatened to suspend the Protocol unless the EU takes their demands seriously and they show more flexibility in the negotiations.
However, the results of this latest survey indicate that the UK gov can no longer use any perceived or widespread societal discord as one of the reasons to carry out this action unilaterally.
For example, the survey found that there was a high level of community agreement on practical solutions, with only 5.6% of those surveyed opposed to the EU's proposals on pharmaceuticals. 80.7% of nationalists, 71.9% of unionists and 66.5% of neither supported the EU's proposal to resolve this difficulty.
Furthermore, the actions of the business community have been highly commended, with 75% of those surveyed agreeing that business leaders had proposed positive ideas and solutions and helped to ease tensions.
The author of the report, Brian Pope, goes on to discuss the political context and implications of the survey:
The Liverpool University survey also included an opportunity to investigate vote intentions on the run-up to the next NI Assembly elections and constitutional preferences.
Firstly, there was a strong consensus across the communities that the NI Assembly and Executive should remain in place until the proposed elections next May, 65% of those surveyed agreed, whilst only 9.6% disagreed.
In terms of priorities, nearly 60% of respondents said that Health, Covid Recovery and the Economy was their number one priority, with only just over 9% opting to choose the NI Protocol.
When asked what respondent's 1st preference voting intentions were for the next Assembly election it was the Alliance Party who showed the greatest projected growth since the 2017 Assembly vote - with a predicted 8.2% increase over this period.
In the survey, Sinn Fein was predicted to be the largest party with 23.0% but were down 4.4% since the 2017 Assembly elections. The DUP defied some recent polls, with a 20.6% share of the vote and the Alliance Party was third on 17.3%. And the UUP and SDLP remained roughly on the same share of the vote that they achieved in 2017 [13% and 12% respectively - my edit]. The TUV on 5.6%, with a 3.0% increase from 2017, and the Greens on a 3.9% vote share.
Overall, this survey, undertaken by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, will be welcomed by those wanting consensus on the NI Protocol and across all communities in Northern Ireland.
The data certainly doesn't indicate a widening divide, and in fact, shows a willingness of most people to support the initiatives by both the EU and UK government to reach an agreement and find pragmatic solutions to the problems created by the Protocol.
Also, those who have endeavoured to accentuate cross-community splits over the Protocol, for whatever reason or purpose, should reflect upon these findings.
The introduction of this new empirical data on our society's attitude to the NI Protocol is a welcome and timely addition to the current debate.
The question which arises from this study and the earlier Lucidtalk survey for Queens University quoted in my letter, is why is the UK government continuing to hype up the prospect of invoking Article 16, the risk of inter-communal violence in Northern Ireland, and the possible breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement power sharing institutions when there is so little support for any of this in Northern Ireland itself?
Only the DUP and TUV currently support this approach, and their support figures in both surveys make up only a combined 26% of the electorate in N. Ireland. Can Boris Johnson really be so invested in supporting the DUP because they assisted his rise to power by defeating Theresa May's Brexit proposals?
The interesting point based on these poll numbers is that Sinn Fein is still poised to become the largest party in Northern Ireland and entitled to the First Minister role. And the Alliance Party, despite being 3% behind the DUP in first preference votes, could yet emerge as the largest unionist party as it is far more likely to attract lower preference votes from voters who gave their first preference vote to the Ulster Unionist, SDLP, and Green parties.
Boris Johnson and David Frost will look very foolish indeed if the DUP loses not only the First Minister role to Sinn Fein, but the Deputy First Minster role to the Alliance party, and with it a resounding majority for the Protocol within the Northern Ireland Assembly itself.
And why would the UK government risk a trade war with the EU, a breakdown in Irish and US bilateral relations, and the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement institutions within N. Ireland just because they don't want the ECJ to have any jurisdiction in N. Ireland?
The only explanation I can offer is that Boris Johnson needs a forever war with the EU in order to keep his Tory supporters and voters in line. But the UK is going to pay a very high price for this, and hardline unionism seems consumed with a death wish.