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Long summer ahead as stalemate over NI protocol set to drag on

With elections done, negotiations are set to crank up, but there is little trust in Johnson

The votes counted and the seats filled, the postmortems completed and the topography of a new political landscape clear, the key questions for Northern Ireland now shift to discussions on the protocol between the EU and the UK, with a six-month deadline for completion. If past performance is any guide to future outcome, it’ll go all the way to the wire. In Dublin, one senior official grimaces: “It’ll be a rough few months.”

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis on Monday morning what he already knew: that there would be no Executive without action on the Northern Ireland protocol.

But officials noted that Donaldson’s words – he demanded “decisive action” on the issue – did not require its abolition. Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Northern Secretary have urged the DUP to allow an Executive to be formed; both know there is no chance of that this week.

Instead, the focus now moves to the future of the protocol, the agreement struck between the EU and the UK to protect the single market and ensure no border on the island, but which has resulted – as agreed – in checks on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.


Some unionists and the British government now say that these checks are too onerous, and London has threatened to invoke provisions of the treaty which enable it to suspend the checks.

The EU, for its part, warns of retaliation of the agreement is suspended unilaterally. It could, it says, end the entire agreement if the British walk away from any part of it – but Brussels has also offered changes which would eliminate most of the checks.


Negotiations between the EU and the UK – with the Irish Government involved, talking to both sides, pressing for a deal – were inconclusive before the Assembly elections and were shelved earlier this year. They will resume in earnest now. One EU source involved says that the EU's chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic is likely to meet British foreign secretary Liz Truss in the coming days, "and we'll take it from there".

“We just want to get down to work now, without the drama,” the source says.

One of the principal barriers to reaching an agreement to any changes on how the protocol works will be the ragged state of relations between Downing Street and Brussels, and the parallel situation in Anglo-Irish relations. While officials in Dublin and London remain in constant contact and personal relations are good, politicians in Dublin and Brussels do not have a high level of trust in British prime minister Boris Johnson.

From the EU’s point of view, Britain agreed the protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement and is now resiling from its obligations in a treaty it only recently signed. The British government, for its part, believes that the implementation of the protocol has been unnecessarily heavy-handed, damaging to the economic relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Senior UK officials insist that London wants to find a solution that is workable and respects the obligations of the protocol to protect the EU’s single market, but does not require onerous barriers to trade across the Irish Sea.

‘Landing ground’

It is by no means clear that the two positions can be reconciled, despite the Taoiseach’s optimism that a “landing ground” is identifiable.

There is also another factor: there is significant doubt in Dublin and Brussels that Johnson actually wants to get a deal. Some on the EU and Irish side believe he wants constant conflict with the EU for domestic political purposes – something fiercely denied by the British government but nonetheless believed with some fervour in parts of the Irish Government and the European Commission.

Whether it’s true or not – and we won’t find out for sure until the negotiations restart in earnest – the fact that it’s believed by the EU side will make the process harder, and a successful outcome less likely. A lack of trust makes everything more difficult.

As well as the queen’s speech setting out the British government’s legislative agenda today – which will be watched closely for references to the protocol, and possible British unilateral action – MEPs and British MPs also meet later this week, while contacts with officials will now intensify as the negotiating machines on either side crank up.

Sources in Dublin say a call between Martin and Johnson is also likely this week, after today's talks between Simon Coveney and Lewis.

Brexit’s back, and it’s going to be a long summer.