John FitzGerald: Lack of consultation by London a key part of NI protocol row

UK government’s decision not to consult with devolved administrations on Brexit stirred mistrust and animosity

There are some hopeful signs that the row between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol may be resolved later this spring. While the Protocol has some negative consequences for the Northern Ireland economy, it also has some upsides.

Even with a compromise on how the Protocol is implemented, there will still be some form of limited checking on goods entering the North from Britain that could subsequently enter the EU. By contrast, Theresa May’s original Brexit deal would not have involved any such checks, and would have been a better deal for the North. The rejection by the House of Commons of all softer forms of Brexit led inevitably to the Protocol. But that’s history.

The structure of retail trade in Europe, and particularly in these islands, had been based on completely free movement of goods between member states. The UK’s departure from the EU Single Market has shown up the costs to this trade of reintroducing customs procedures between our islands. The paperwork needed to transfer goods from Britain to shops in the North has increased retailers’ costs there, and may ultimately lead to reduced competition.

If we are going to be let down, we should be told. The constitution of this country may be affected

A resolution on the Protocol would ease those problems, but not remove them entirely – some administrative obstacles to certain goods entering the North from Britain would remain, in order to protect the integrity of the Single Market. Nonetheless, the upside for the Northern economy is the continuing easy access to the EU Single Market that Northern Ireland enjoys as a result of the Protocol. That’s a big plus. The extra costs of additional checks and paperwork are what enable that Single Market access to continue.


Brexit has undoubtedly loosened and weakened the United Kingdom. The instability of the Union isn’t down to the Protocol, but due to Brexit itself, and how peripheral regions have reacted to the rise in English nationalism. Scotland, which like the North voted Remain, is seriously alienated. Support for its independence has grown. If that independence were achieved, it would leave Northern Ireland an orphan within a much smaller UK.

In the past the unionist community in Northern Ireland has been comfortable with the possibility of different trade arrangements affecting Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK.

In 1938, during the negotiations between the Irish and UK governments to end the Economic War, UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain suggested to de Valera that Ireland should apply a more favourable tariff regime to goods coming from the North than to goods from Britain. He said that such a goodwill gesture might eventually contribute to reconciling Northern unionists to unification.

In both 1938 and 1965, the unionist government in Stormont had no objection to a different tariff regime from the rest of the UK

This proposal was acceptable to the Northern administration, but rejected by Dublin, fearing it would lead to a loss of jobs. The Stormont administration were also enabled to vet the final trade agreement that emerged between the UK and Ireland, to check that there were no hidden problems for Northern Ireland. Before those consultations between London and Belfast became public, one Stormont unionist MP, Tommy Henderson, stated:

“If we are going to be let down, we should be told. The constitution of this country may be affected. British ministers are tricky and clever. They have let us down before ...”

On that occasion Northern Ireland’s concerns on the final deal were taken into account by London.

In June 1965, taoiseach Seán Lemass met prime minister Harold Wilson as negotiations began on an Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement. Lemass, who had been part of the 1938 negotiating delegation, put forward a proposal similar to Chamberlain’s 1938 one – he suggested that Ireland might offer a faster pace of tariff reductions on goods from the North than on goods from mainland Britain. After Wilson had checked that this proposal was acceptable to the unionist regime in Stormont, it was incorporated in the eventual Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in December 1965.

In both 1938 and 1965, the unionist government in Stormont had no objection to a different tariff regime from the rest of the UK when they sold goods to the Republic. They did not perceive any threat to their position within the UK.

One difference this time round is that, unlike their consultations with Stormont in 1938 and 1965, London did not feel obliged to consult the devolved administrations on the form Brexit would take. This change in practice, and the failure to consult the regimes in devolved regions when their interests are affected, has had serious consequences. As a union with several devolved administrations, this points up the need for reform in the UK’s constitutional practice.