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Fintan O’Toole: Truss’s latest take on NI protocol reveals what is really going on

Struggling Ulster farmers should be alarmed about what the Tories are really thinking

Last week, UK foreign secretary Liz Truss made a belligerent statement on the Northern Ireland protocol. But while she was rattling the sabre, there was a gleam of light that illuminated what was really going on.

Truss is on manoeuvres, trying to outflank rival contenders for Boris Johnson’s job, and internal Tory politics take precedence over everything else. Everything else includes the stability of Northern Ireland and the unity of the democracies in the face of Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine.

Truss threatened that Britain will flagrantly break international law by unilaterally scrapping the protocol. This is the same woman who repeatedly condemns Putin’s “flagrant breach of international law”.

But this crass hypocrisy is, by now, unremarkable. What was interesting in Truss’s statement was something else – an unguarded admission that Britain wants to funnel food from around the world into the EU. And that Northern Ireland should be the opening through which the EU’s defence of its agricultural markets is breached.

In her complaints about the iniquity of the protocol that her own government negotiated, signed and presented to British voters as a terrific deal, Truss started with the outrage that “Lincolnshire sausages” would need veterinary certificates to enter Northern Ireland.

So far, so boring. Anxiety that the Ulster fry cannot survive without a proper English sausage is one of the cliches of protocol jingoism.

Lincolnshire sausage may just about pass rhetorical muster as an icon of unionist solidarity. But curries from Thailand, lamb from New Zealand and pork from Brazil do not

But Truss quickly moved on to the other deprivations that might be inflicted on the allegedly banger-less burghers of Bangor: “A range of food would likely be unavailable in Northern Ireland shops if it originates from outside the EU, such as Thai green curry ready meals, New Zealand lamb and Brazilian pork.”

Here, as well as the sheep and the pigs, Truss was surely letting the cat out of the bag. The Lincolnshire sausage may just about pass rhetorical muster as an icon of unionist solidarity. But curries from Thailand, lamb from New Zealand and pork from Brazil certainly do not.

Imagine for a moment that you are a good Ulster pig farmer who votes for the DUP and has been persuaded that the protocol is a threat to your identity. The idea that Tesco can’t send some processed meat from Lincolnshire to Lisburn without paperwork may well (to throw another animal into the menagerie) get your goat.

But veterinary certificates for Brazilian pork? Would you not be thinking – aye, and the more the merrier?

Pig problems

According to one of my go-to websites, PigWorld.co.uk, the Ulster Farmers’ Union warned in March that the Northern Ireland pig sector was facing a crisis “like never before”. Union president Victor Chestnutt warned that “Our pig producers are on their knees. They’ve never experienced such financial difficulty like they are right now – it’s gut wrenching.”

I can’t help wondering why Truss thought they would like to hear the good news: scrap the protocol and we can flood Northern Ireland with cheap Brazilian pork.

How about Ulster’s sheep farmers, who are also saying that many of them are in imminent danger of going out of business because the costs of production are higher than the prices they are getting? Are they thrilled to know that, if the only damned protocol is pulped, the shelves of Northern Ireland’s supermarkets will groan with lamb from New Zealand.

Something doesn’t add up here. Truss’s tin-eared rhetoric may be added to the ample evidence of the psychological distance between London and Northern Ireland.

But there is a deeper logic at work. To understand why Truss would choose to illustrate the evils of the protocol by citing barriers to the importation of non-EU food, think about two words: trade deals.

Desperate for deals

Britain is desperate for deals with non-EU countries to make up some fraction of what it is losing in trade with the world’s richest single market, the EU. It is not accidental that Truss cited, in her declaration of intent to go to war on the protocol, food from three different continents: Asia, Australasia and Latin America.

These, in the Brexit fantasy, are the new frontiers of Global Britain. What these countries (and the United States) want is unfettered access for their agricultural exports to the British market. If UK farmers have to be sacrificed on the altar of the post-Brexit golden age, so be it.

Truss has made clear to them that the agenda being pursued is neither unionist nor nationalist but an extreme form of neoliberal globalisation

But – and this is what Truss was essentially admitting last week – a further inducement for these countries to do trade deals with Britain would be the possibility of using Northern Ireland as a free corridor through which, say, Brazilian pork can pass from a port in Britain to Larne, down to Rosslare and over to France.

This is why Truss is making what might otherwise seem a bizarre link between the protocol and the rights of massive Brazilian meat conglomerates to shift their products into Northern Ireland without checks. It is also why the EU knows that it would be insane to let this happen.

As, indeed, would farmers in Northern Ireland, whatever their political identity. Truss has made clear to them that the agenda being pursued is neither unionist nor nationalist but an extreme form of neoliberal globalisation. Will they be led towards their fate like New Zealand lambs to a cold storage shipping container?