David Frost, the UK minister charged with Brexit-related negotiations, complained to MPs that negotiations with Brussels have not yet dealt with the heart of the problem with the Northern Ireland protocol. Brussels needs "rapidly" to rethink its approach. He doesn't say, but lets it be understood, that the heart of the problem is the protocol itself, which he and his boss, Boris Johnson, willingly signed up to only a year ago. And for which neither has yet proposed any kind of viable alternative that both protects the EU single market and the borderless island of Ireland.
Talks with Brussels via vice-president of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic, are not about the protocol itself but its implementation in as smooth and friction-free a manner as possible. Sefcovic is amenable to do a deal, Frost suggests, but is constrained by the awful member states – "not all of which understand Northern Ireland as well as he [Sefcovic] now does".
This is an all-too-familiar ploy – divide and conquer, sow distrust between the EU negotiating team and member states, as regularly tried with chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. And they will succumb. They didn’t, and they won’t this time either.
Frost is also sabre-rattling with great gusto. In an interview with a British newspaper he again threatened the nuclear option, “all options”, of suspending the customs checks under article 16 of the protocol, a threat incompatible with the ostensible purpose of these technical discussions.
And Frost has alarmed Dublin in beginning to march to the drumbeat of militant unionism, setting an unofficial deadline for agreement with Brussels of the beginning of the North's marching season, July 12th.There was a "real life timetable" in Northern Ireland which should be taken into account, he warned, as good as inviting protesters on to the streets. It was manna to new leader of the DUP Edwin Poots, elected on the unfulfillable promise he would scrap the protocol. And it is surely no coincidence that Frost had just met the paramilitary-linked Loyalist Communities Council (LCC).
Poots also promised he would boycott meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, and is committed to legal action against the protocol.
There have been hints, however, in the rhetoric of both unionists and loyalists that suggest a dawning pragmatic realisation that they are stuck with the protocol and the best they can hope for is “significant change” to it. In discussions about the merits and limitations of “equivalence” agreements as against “dynamic alignment” to EU regulations, there is surely scope for a face-saving formula which will leave the protocol intact. But you have to want an agreement, and Brussels and Dublin remain to be convinced that Frost and London do.