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There may be a silver lining in von der Leyen’s appalling blunder

Pragmatics of NI protocol forced to top of political agenda in Brussels and London

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen: Her protocol screw-up indicates Irish concerns can be pushed to one side when the struggle between great powers becomes intense. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s appalling blunder in attempting to override the Northern Ireland protocol last weekend may yet turn out for the best if it focuses attention in Brussels and London on smoothing out the difficulties that have emerged in the operation of the protocol.

Even before last weekend’s debacle, the protocol has become a serious political issue as it was not simply causing difficulties for business and consumers in Northern Ireland but had prompted an escalation of tension in loyalist circles which was causing serious worry to senior police officers.

While the commission blunder has been deeply embarrassing for the EU, it has forced the issue to the top of the political agenda in Brussels and London and that is no bad thing. If both sides are serious about finding ways of making the protocol work better for the people of Northern Ireland, it could take some of the steam out of a potentially explosive situation.

The danger is that an over-fussy bureaucratic approach by the EU and a desire by British Brexiteers to play the situation for propaganda purposes could combine to do the opposite and make matters even worse. Taoiseach Micheál Martin expressed the hope in the Dáil on Wednesday that “sensible, common sense modifications” could be made to the protocol. That is clearly the way forward if both sides want to avail of the opportunity to reduce tensions.


Martin and Johnson came together to reject von der Leyen's crass attempt to use the protocol in the vaccine war

One hopeful sign last Friday night was the way in which Martin and Boris Johnson came together to reject von der Leyen’s crass attempt to use the protocol in the vaccine war. It was somewhat undermined by Johnson’s own threat in the House of Commons this week to override the protocol if needs be but hopefully that was merely typical sabre-rattling from him.

DUP flaws

Naturally the Democratic Unionist Party has jumped gleefully into the fray to demand the complete abolition of the protocol but that party’s political judgment has been so bad at every turn in the Brexit saga that even its supporters must be hard put to take it seriously.

Having torpedoed Theresa May’s efforts to adopt a UK-wide approach to Brexit, the DUP was instrumental in creating a situation where the protocol was the only way for both sides to strike a trade deal. An opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week showed that the party is down to 19 per cent of the vote, just one point ahead of the Alliance.

The DUP has seized on the current controversy as a lifeline but, in typical fashion, is making unrealistic demands rather than seeking practical solutions. That said there is no doubt there are serious problems with the operation of the protocol and they are fuelling tension and anxiety in the North.

Part of the problem is that many British firms have still not got to grips with the new trading rules and more time will be needed to allow them to adjust. It is not only in relation to Northern Ireland that the lack of preparation in the UK for Brexit has manifested itself. There have been many reports of problems in trade between the Republic and the UK, much of it due to similar lack of preparedness on the part of British firms for the reality of Brexit.

Unity speculation

Even if it is possible to smooth out the difficulties in the operation of the protocol, the sense of resentment felt by loyalists at its very existence will remain. Dealing with that will require not just sensitive handling from the Irish and British governments. There is also an urgent need on both sides of the Irish Sea to dial down casual and ill-informed speculation about the imminence of a united Ireland. The prediction by former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne that a united Ireland is inevitable has probably done far more to stoke loyalist fears than Sinn Féin’s incessant demands for a Border poll.

There is urgent need both sides of the Irish Sea to dial down casual and ill-informed speculation about a united Ireland

This is why the calm approach of Martin and his stress on a shared island rather than the old war cry of a united Ireland is so important. It would make sense for unionism to engage with the notion of a shared island before they are once again abandoned by right-wing Tories who care for nothing apart from their own a narrow vision of English nationalism.

The protocol also has a message for the Government in Dublin that Irish concerns can be pushed to one side when the struggle between great powers becomes intense. The episode does point up the incredible achievement of Enda Kenny’s government in getting the EU to make the absence of a hard border on this island one of its key Brexit objectives but it also shows how our interests can be squeezed at times of crisis.

A number of sources in Brussels remarked this week that the protocol debacle would never have happened if Phil Hogan was still trade commissioner. Whether or not that is the case, it illustrates once more the foolish behaviour of Leo Varadkar and Martin in throwing our most powerful EU official to the wolves for short-term political advantage. More strategic thinking is required in future decisions affecting Ireland’s place in the EU.