Northern Ireland Protocol

Jim O’Callaghan: Government needs to reconsider softly-softly approach to Boris Johnson’s antics

Conciliatory approach is not working and merely encourages a provocative UK government to keep pushing its demands on the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol

‘It suits Boris Johnson’s domestic political agenda for the Tory government to be seen to be in a state of constant conflict with those he patronisingly refers to as “our friends and partners in the EU”.’ Picture: Getty

It is time to stand up to Boris Johnson’s ongoing and chaotic efforts to undermine the Withdrawal Agreement that his government entered into with the European Union. This is all the more necessary because his efforts are now being used, intentionally or otherwise, to undermine and misrepresent the terms of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

To date, the Irish government and the EU have been conciliatory in trying to assuage British concerns about the Protocol. Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission negotiator on the protocol, and the EU have been open to joint work with the UK government on implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to bring long-term certainty and predictability to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. The EU has set forward proposals on how the Protocol can be implemented in a manner that causes less interference to goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.

These conciliatory approaches have been ignored by the UK government and instead it keeps raising the stakes, Trump-like, in an effort to intimidate the EU into renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. The EU responds by stating that dialogue and discussion is its preferred route. This conciliatory approach is not working and merely encourages a provocative UK government to keep pushing its demands. The EU needs to send a very strong message to London that the Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol that Johnson signed up to will not be renegotiated. The EU also needs to spell out what will be its response if that Agreement is broken by the UK.

Unfortunately, it suits Johnson’s domestic political agenda for the Tory government to be seen to be in a state of constant conflict with those he repeatedly and patronisingly refers to as “our friends and partners in the EU”. Last week, Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary, sought to justify this ongoing conflict by brazenly stating unilateral action on the Protocol by the UK government was necessary to uphold the GFA.

Clear statement

Truss, a vocal remainer who prior to the referendum believed departure from the EU would damage the UK’s economic interests, said the UK government intends to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. This transparent attempt to misuse the GFA for its own narrow political purposes is a clear statement by the UK government that it intends to breach an international agreement.

It is noteworthy that only in recent times has the UK government used the protection of the GFA as its justification for this proposed unilateral action. The irony and cynicism of this move should not be lost, particularly since the impact of Brexit on the GFA was largely ignored by UK governments since 2016. The clear reason for this choreographed change is because it now believes the invocation of the GFA may reduce or confuse the opposition of the one entity that does exert significant influence on the UK government – the United States of America.

For Brexit Britain to prosper economically in the world it is essential that the United States gives the UK a trade deal, and that it supports the UK in its new endeavours outside of the EU, irrespective of the consequences for other countries. Had Donald Trump remained in office, Johnson would have had a compliant and willing collaborator in his efforts to weaken the EU’s stance on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Instead, he must face Joe Biden whose resistance to UK games affecting Northern Ireland and its peace process is constant and resolute.

In the past when Johnson and his government threatened unilateral action that could cause a hard border in Ireland, the response of Irish America has been prompt and unwavering. Whether it be Congressman Richie Neal or others from the Friends of Ireland caucus, there has been a united response in defending the GFA and the United States’ assumed role as guarantor of that Agreement.

The importance of this American influence is evident from the fact that Johnson recently sent Conor Burns, his own special representative, to the United States to dilute American political opposition to any British unilateral action. His mission failed. If it did anything, his mission highlighted to Irish America the threat posed to peace on the island by a reckless and self-interested British government.

Firm response

Understanding this dispute requires recognition that every action has a reaction. Brexit and the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU had serious consequences for the island of Ireland and for the GFA. The majority of people in Northern Ireland did not vote for Brexit but their interests were ignored. The Protocol is an inevitable and necessary reaction to Brexit. It is not a unilateral provocative action designed to undermine Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. Instead, it is a measured attempt to ensure that, notwithstanding Brexit, there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, and that the EU single market is protected.

The Irish government and the EU have indicated that they are agreeable to the implementation of the Protocol being reformed. Their genuine efforts to date have been ignored or rebuffed by the Johnson government.

At some stage this saga needs to end so that the people and businesses of Northern Ireland are no longer pawns in a Tory game of Brexit politics. Until such time as the UK government is given a very firm response ⁠— backed by the Biden administration ⁠— it will continue to play this dangerous and chaotic game.

The Irish government needs to reconsider its softly-softly approach to the irresponsible antics of the Johnson government. The lesson the world has learned in recent times is that bullies are not deterred by gentle words but by firm resolve. Ireland needs to call out more clearly to its many friends on both sides of the Atlantic that the UK's actions are not acceptable. A mature democracy like the UK cannot be allowed to renounce its international obligations.

Jim O’Callaghan is a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South