UK’s ‘bad faith’ acting leaves Government walking a difficult tightrope

NI protocol row: No Irish Government wants their commitment to the EU and promotion of peace in North to be in conflict

The anger in Brussels and Dublin on Thursday at the British government's unilateral move on Northern Ireland's Brexit arrangements was palpable.

Sources in both the Irish Government and the EU say that the extension of the grace period for checks on some goods entering the North from Britain – which had been due to expire at the end of this month but has now been unilaterally extended by London until October – could comfortably have been agreed as part of the ongoing discussions between the EU and UK on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol.

“We were well on the way to getting to the position announced yesterday by agreement, we just needed to bring the EU 27 on board,” said one official in Dublin.

An EU source agreed, pointing to the efforts made by commissioner Maros Sefcovic in talks with British minister Michael Gove to repair the damage done by the EU's aborted triggering of article 16 of the protocol and to agree rules and modalities for the operation of the protocol.

And because the EU would have agreed an extension of the grace period, the move to do so unilaterally by the UK without reference to either Brussels or Dublin is being interpreted as an aggressive, deliberately hostile move. In other words, the EU believes the whole point of the British action is to have a row. The move is likely to be met with the predictable response of legal action.

It is also being interpreted as a signal that the more emollient and consensus-seeking approach by Gove has given way to a more confrontational modus operandi on the part of Lord David Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator now appointed to the British cabinet to handle relations with the EU.

“This is all about ‘Brand Frostie’, ‘here comes Frostie’,” says one exasperated-sounding Irish official. “Gimme a break.”

This view is strongly contested by British sources, but it reflects the level of anger in both Dublin and Brussels.

The words used by multiple sources in Dublin and Brussels last night and were “bad faith”. EU and Irish officials say that the British move has severely damaged trust; this is, they say, after all the second time that the British government has said it will unilaterally abrogate the terms of the protocol, the first being the subsequently abandoned internal market Bill before Christmas.

“They are bad faith actors and they will continue to be,” was the bleak assessment of one Irish source. “The situation in the North is pretty febrile, and it’s pretty clear that London doesn’t care.”

And it is the situation in the North that most concerns Dublin right now. In a sense, Ireland is caught between the EU’s requirements that the protocol be implemented properly and the EU single market protected on one hand, and the need on the other hand to take account of the genuine unrest in unionism over the barriers between the North and Britain.

Last night's statement from loyalists close to paramilitary organisations – though they stressed their activities would remain peaceful and democratic – that they were withdrawing their support for the Belfast Agreement as a result of the post-Brexit arrangements, was received in Dublin as an example of how events in the North can escalate if they are not minded carefully by all sides.

Ireland is committed to its place in the EU, and its single market, almost above all else, and was prepared to consider checks on cross-Border trade if there was no agreement on Brexit – a little noticed but hugely consequential decision by the last Government. But no Irish Government ever wants to be put in a position where its commitment to the EU and its promotion of peace in the North are in conflict. Walking that tightrope got rather more difficult last night.