The Irish Times view on the Northern Ireland protocol: Boris Johnson’s demands cannot be met

Boris Johnson is asking the EU to accept a system based on trust, but trust is in short supply when it comes to a prime minister who has shown little evidence that he is acting in good faith

British prime minister Boris Johnson’s substantive demands on the Northern Ireland protocol are impossible, not least because they require the EU, which is based on the application of legal order, to accept instead a system based on trust. Photograph: Justin Tallis/ AFP via Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson’s substantive demands on the Northern Ireland protocol are impossible, not least because they require the EU, which is based on the application of legal order, to accept instead a system based on trust. Photograph: Justin Tallis/ AFP via Getty Images

 

Less than two years after he negotiated, signed and ratified the Northern Ireland protocol as part of Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union, Boris Johnson this week demanded that it should be torn apart. He wants to exempt British-made goods destined for Northern Ireland from all checks, to introduce a dual regulatory system in place of the EU regulatory regime and to remove the oversight role of European courts.

This amounts to a dismantling of the core of the protocol, which was designed to avoid a customs and regulatory border on the island of Ireland, while protecting the European single market and Ireland’s place within it. The agreement does not affect Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom and includes a consent mechanism that allows the Stormont institutions to discontinue large parts of it after four years. The British government’s decision not to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol by triggering article 16 is welcome. It reflects a realisation in London that unilateral action bears a heavy cost, not only for Britain’s relationship with European capitals but with Washington too.

Britain has asked the EU to agree to a standstill period, during which current arrangements surrounding the protocol would be frozen and European legal action over earlier breaches of the agreement would be paused. The European Commission has ruled out a renegotiation but will consider the standstill. Johnson’s substantive demands are impossible, not least because they require the EU, which is based on the application of legal order, to accept instead a system based on trust. Trust is in short supply when it comes to the British prime minister, who has shown little evidence that he is acting in good faith.

Although the proposals are couched in the rhetoric of concern about the protocol’s impact on Northern Ireland, this British government has shown scant regard for the adverse effect of its policies on the people there. In proposing a blanket amnesty for Troubles-related offences, it ignored the concerns of victims and drew the opposition of every party in Northern Ireland for the sake of appeasing Conservative backbenchers. Brexit minister David Frost and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis have made no effort to discourage unionist unrest over the protocol while they paid their respects to groups representing loyalist paramilitaries. They have nothing to say about the advantages the protocol gives to Northern businesses, which can trade freely with the EU as well as with the rest of the UK.

Brussels and Dublin have reacted calmly to the British proposals, taking time to study them before offering a response. But when the time comes, they should leave Johnson in no doubt that he must fulfil the commitments he made in the protocol and that it will not be renegotiated.

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