The European Commission's Friday night folly of invoking article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol was always going to generate an orgy of outrage and a festival of finger pointing in the House of Commons. Cabinet office minister Michael Gove captured the mood of the House with an extended gloat listing some of those who condemned the Commission's action.
"It is remarkable; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Carl Bildt, Alexander Stubb – the former Finnish prime minister – all the parties in Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach and the Irish foreign minister were all critical of the decision that was made. This is not some sort of gaggle of Eurosceptics rehearsing traditional lines – it is a recognition that the Commission mucked up," he said.
Gove's tone was more circumspect when he spoke about what should happen next, as he made a point of exempting Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic – his opposite number in the committee that governs the implementation of the protocol – from criticism. He admitted for the first time that the difficulties faced by businesses were more than teething problems and called for grace periods on some checks and procedures to be extended.
Gove’s criticism of the EU’s triggering of article 16, which can suspend parts of the protocol in certain circumstances, made explicit his own government’s reluctance to invoke it and the tests that must be applied before doing so.
"There is a difference between recognising that it is there as an emergency cord to pull if we need to in order to ensure that the rights and interests of the people in Northern Ireland are protected, but it can be invoked only in specific circumstances, none of which…were in place when the European Commission invoked it," he said.
Threats and vandalism
The debate took place in the shadow of threats to border staff at the ports of Larne and Belfast and vandalism at the offices of Alliance MP Stephen Farry and DUP MP Jim Shannon.
"In Northern Ireland, words can have very dangerous consequences," SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said, adding that it was time for all political leaders to dial down the rhetoric.
The DUP’s Gavin Robinson did just that, adopting a measured tone as he called for “practical and workable” solutions to problems caused by the protocol for everyone from pet owners to gardeners importing plants from across the Irish Sea.
“What we need to see, and what we need to demonstrate clearly and quickly, is that constitutional politics works, and that we need to get those solutions through constitutional politics,” he said.
Gove made a point of praising "the calm and purposeful way" the North's First Minister Arlene Foster addressed the challenges posed by the protocol, perhaps hoping she would dial down her own rhetoric. He was to be disappointed as a few hours later Ms Foster said the DUP would campaign to scrap the protocol and refuse to take part in any North-South engagement related to it.