This was the year that Irish politics was scheduled to escape from the clutches of Brexit. The agreement finally hammered out between the EU and the UK over their future relationship in the dying days of 2020 appeared to settle the issue once and for all, to everybody’s relief.
New Year’s Day had barely passed, however, when the dreaded B-word bounced back on to the political agenda with the eruption of controversy over the Northern Ireland protocol. Almost a year later it threatens to haunt our relations with the UK and the EU for the foreseeable future.
Coming to terms with the protocol was never going to be easy for unionist parties in the North but the way in which Boris Johnson and his Brexit negotiator David Frost manipulated the debate for their own domestic political agenda over the course of the year made a difficult situation even worse.
They were given an opening by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who made a dreadful blunder in January by threatening to invoke article 16 of the protocol in a row with the UK over vaccine supplies. The appalled reaction of the Irish Government, and the commission officials who had negotiated Brexit, prompted a rapid U-turn and the threat was dropped within a matter of hours.
There was a strong suspicion in Brussels that Johnson was simply using the article 16 threat as a convenient distraction from his succession of political woes
Sadly the damage had been done, and the UK government was given the ideal excuse to start threatening to invoke article 16 at various points during the year when the negotiations got sticky. The emollient EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic did his best to take the tension out of the talks on a number of occasions but Frost responded with belligerence to every proposed compromise.
There was a strong suspicion in Brussels that Johnson was simply using the article 16 threat as a convenient distraction from his succession of political woes at Westminster. Logically the last thing the UK needs is a trade war with the EU that would follow the triggering of the article, never mind the damage it would do to the UK’s prospect of negotiating a trade deal with the United States.
If logic governed the matter there would be no question of triggering article 16, particularly in the light of the concessions Sefcovic made towards the end of the year to ensure there would be a minimum of disruption to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is just a pity that the EU offer to make the protocol as painless as possible was not on the table from the beginning but even if it had been, there is no guarantee it would have been accepted. Political ambition has always trumped logic in Johnson’s world, and his strategy to date has been to keep the pot boiling by hyping up conflict with the EU for domestic political gain.
There is also a suspicion in some quarters that Johnson and Frost realised that if Northern Ireland started to thrive economically as a result of the protocol, it might call the whole Brexit project into question, and that could not be allowed to happen.
One of Johnson's responses to the recent turmoil in the UK was to adopt a softer stance on the protocol
Johnson is currently embroiled in his deepest crisis since becoming prime minister, and the tactics that made him an election winner in 2019 are looking more threadbare by the day. The politician who used Brexit to brand himself as an anti-establishment figure is now seen by many British voters as part of an out-of-touch ruling elite, as the byelection defeat in Shropshire demonstrated.
One of Johnson’s responses to the recent turmoil in the UK was to adopt a softer stance on the protocol so that he was not fighting on too many fronts at once. This led the normally aggressive Frost to take a more positive approach in the talks with the EU. In particular there were strong hints that the UK would drop its demand that the European Court of Justice should be removed from its role in disputes over the operation of the protocol.
For its part the EU moved unilaterally to ensure that the protocol would not pose any threat to the movement of medicines between Britain and Northern Ireland. It seemed as if the two sides were preparing to finally bury the hatchet.
Then came the shock resignation of Frost before Christmas, triggered by his objections to the latest Covid restrictions in the UK. He was immediately replaced by foreign secretary Liz Truss, but whether the change in personnel will make things better or worse in the new year is an open question.
The Northern Assembly elections in May are another complication
Truss is regarded as one of the leading contenders to replace Johnson and may well be tempted to seek confrontation rather than compromise with the EU to appeal to the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party. On the other hand, getting the protocol issue sorted once and for all might burnish her leadership credentials with the British public.
The Northern Assembly elections in May are another complication, and it would probably suit DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson if the issue were still up in the air at that point. The only thing for certain is that the protocol will still be around as a political issue for the first few months of the new year.