The Irish Times view on the Northern Ireland protocol: a blinkered strategy

Michel Barnier is right – the problem is Brexit, not the protocol

An important truth is perhaps dawning on some unionist leaders: that the Northern Ireland protocol and its Irish Sea quasi-border are not going to be abandoned by the UK – no matter the degree of opposition or protest related to them.

The talks last week between Michael Gove and Maroš Šefcovic at the EU-UK Joint Committee on implementation of the Brexit agreement were "frank" and "constructive", and unambiguous in recommitting both sides to the "proper implementation of the protocol". As EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier explained: "The difficulties on the island of Ireland are caused by Brexit, not by the protocol. The protocol is the solution." Nor, despite his weekend prevarication on the protocol, is Boris Johnson going to wield its safeguard clause, Article 16, to suspend its provisions.

The DUP is nevertheless pressing ahead with its insistence that the teething problems on the Irish Sea are an attack on the sovereignty of Northern Ireland and can only be overcome by Westminster reneging on the protocol. No alternative is proposed, so the remedy involves abandoning attempts to maintain a border-free island and to keep the North in the EU’s single market.

All or nothing. Just as it blundered tactically in opposing Theresa May’s failed attempt to keep the whole of the UK in the single market, her alternative to dividing the UK, the DUP continues to see imperfect reform of the protocol as an enemy of perfection, the abandonment of the protocol.

The party's former leader Peter Robinson has a more nuanced position. In a Newsletter column on Friday he suggested that out-and-out obstructionism is unlikely to produce results: "It may be possible to force some slight change or trifling concession that may reduce the mischief the protocol will cause but it is unlikely under present circumstances that either the UK government or the EU will go much further".

He advises a longer game. In effect, to use the protocol’s provisions against itself. “In time,” he says, “with carefully documented evidence, it is possible that the economic and other damage to Northern Ireland will provide incontrovertible justification for the suspension of aspects of the protocol’s operation under article 16.” However, London would have to co-operate which is an unlikely proposition.

Alternatively, he asks, can protocol opponents “gain a majority in the Assembly and withhold the democratic consent required under article 18?” That would mean waiting until the 2024 yes/no vote provided for in the agreement. And allowing time in the interim for the kinks so manifest and irritating now to be ironed out, or simply to become an accepted part of life. Can a real majority against the protocol be built on that basis? Probably not, but the DUP would do well to rethink its even more disastrous strategy.