Is this for real? The Daily Telegraph, the FT and the Irish Times are all agreed on a significant hardening of positions on the Protocol. Using their own debased form of signalling, loyalist paramilitaries are piling on pressure that Lord Frost for the UK government seems only too willing to accept.
Where is this leading? A closer look at the Daily Telegraph closest to UKG sources, suggests a timetable from the end of this month for deciding to invoke Article 16 suspending key parts of the Protocol, followed by a month of negotiations. More tangibly..
The Telegraph understands that the UK plans to simultaneously lay secondary legislation before Parliament to slash customs checks and have the laws changed before Christmas…The “technical” changes would let businesses know what the new arrangements for goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be, according to those familiar with the plan. They would also send a signal to Brussels that the UK was ready to unilaterally scale back customs checks even if no agreement over new terms of trade was reached.
A senior EU diplomat told The Telegraph: “EU capitals like Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris would expect a robust response. We are ready for peace but prepared for war.”
Simon Coveney spells out what “ war” might mean in terms which the FT picks up as a lead; “Irish minister warns EU could ditch entire Brexit deal.” (Coveney doesn’t go quite as far as the headline writer).
He hoped the dispute would not escalate into a trade war between the EU and the UK, but that the EU would conclude the UK was not operating in good faith if article 16 was invoked.
Mr Coveney said he needed to be blunt in his warnings to the UK that the suspension of the protocol would not be viewed as a minor issue by the EU, and said the British government should not underestimate the impact of triggering article 16 in Brussels.
He said it was not a “technical issue” but would be seen by the EU as “deliberately forcing a breakdown in relations and negotiations between the two sides”.
RTE’s Tony Connelly reports:” Once COP26 is out of the way, there are strong expectations that London will make its move.”
Lord Frost’s case for what amounts to a complete renegotiation of the Protocol has been spelt out more clearly than ever in the context of a paper in the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange by Roderick Crawford. Dismissing the usual criticism made most recently by John Major, that Johnson and Frost were going back on a deal they themselves signed, Frost in a foreword argues that Johnson was at first in the same weak political position at Westminster as Theresa May and was in effect, negotiating under duress. The UKG was therefore in thrall to the Irish government’s “one sided”, north-south, all island economy interpretation of the GFA at the expense of the east – west UK integrated economy.
What does Frost contemplate for the future? He doesn’t put it in his own words but endorses the Policy Exchange analysis. This goes back to the fundamental flaws of the joint report of 2017, kyboshed by the DUP for leaving NI only in the single market for goods, the position to which Johnson reverted despite pledging not to do so to the DUP. A reversion to “alternative arrangements” for monitoring the land border is even contemplated.
In briefings to RTE’s Connelly, EU sources say the Commission has resisted removal of the European Court of Justice from the protocol .., and this seems certain to continue, despite some fevered speculation that both sides might agree an extra layer of arbitration between Northern Ireland and the ECJ.
“The ECJ is fundamental and not negotiable,” says an EU diplomat. ” Furthermore, the EU is insisting that whatever easements are agreed in implementing the protocol will be conditional.
This is because trust has sunk to such levels that member states will demand guarantees that the UK will complete infrastructure at Northern ports, including Border Control Posts, even if the need for checks and controls is reduced significantly.
“There is the difficulty in making sure that whatever the UK signs up to, they don’t end up paying lip service to it,” says the source. “The Commission has presented member states with preconditions, including building the border posts. If they ever need to start implementing some checks because there’s an abuse of the system, those checks can be resumed.”
So at NI ports, while at the UK is planning easing existing customs checks by the end of the year even if a new deal is reached, the EU is said to be insisting on building border posts as a condition of a deal.
The yawing gap that can only be a gift to loyalist mischief makers. The sabre rattling is getting louder.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London