No deal on the Northern Ireland protocol is going to give everyone all that they are looking for. The very nature of Brexit ensures that this cannot be the case. However, the agreement struck between the EU and the UK is one that is worth supporting. It offers stable trading arrangements to Northern Ireland with a chance of political progress and the restoration of the Stormont institutions. And it heads off the risk of a damaging period of rising tensions between the EU and the UK.
The protocol was an agreement reached in haste to finally meet then prime minister Boris Johnson’s goal of getting Brexit “done.” At the time – in late 2019 – he brushed aside the consequences – a border in the Irish Sea. Neither had the EU side thought through the full consequences. It was a political deal, but the practicalities had not been worked out.
The UK subsequently completed its departure from the EU, but the protocol problem festered. It was clear that it had practical consequences which no one had anticipated – for example in the movement of medicines from Britain to Northern Ireland. Unionism, particularly the DUP, criticised the protocol as an unacceptable removal of Northern Ireland from the UK market, with too much influence over the North left in the hands of the EU and the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The deal which has been announced goes a long way to squaring the Brexit circle. It offers free movement of goods via a “green lane” from Britain to the Northern Ireland market. It reduces the role of the ECJ in disputes over the protocol and hands back control of VAT rates and excise duties in Northern Ireland to London. Northern Ireland’s politicians are to have a say in the implementation of EU rules in Northern Ireland– via a so-called " Stormont brake.”
Brexit means there is no going back to the way things were before the UK left the EU. But the EU has made significant concessions – more than many had expected – and both sides have framed the deal as underpinning peace and the Belfast Agreement. It offers, finally, a way forward.
Those considering opposing the deal need to ask what the alternative would be – ongoing tensions between the UK and EU, a possible trade war and Northern Ireland left in limbo, economically and politically. In contrast, the agreement can pave the way for the restoration of the Stormont institutions and offers a route to stability and economic progress, with Northern Ireland having unique access to both the EU and UK markets for goods.
Sunak may need to face down opposition on his own backbenches. Meanwhile, the DUP says it will take time to consider the agreement. It can now say that its opposition has led to fundamental changes. It should surely take the opportunity, claim a success and return to Stormont.