2022 may be the year when vagueness gave way to clarity, at least as far as Labour and the EU are concerned. But clarity was previously available when Geoffrey Cox MP took the liberty of emphasising how the Northern Ireland Protocol was dependent on the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in 2019.
The then Attorney General’s advice provides a sobering background to how the Labour party leadership now reflects on Brexit, even as the Tory leadership exchanges braggadocio for caution in its efforts to reach an accommodation with the EU over the status of Northern Ireland. A “conspiracy of silence” is how FT Political Correspondent Charles Parker describes Labour’s steadfast refusal to emote on the gathering crisis affecting Britain’s economy and its cherished NHS. Reprising the theme at an event hosted by UK in a Changing Europe on 27th October 2022, Economist magazine journalist Matthew Holehouse described the disappointment awaiting Labour members when Sir Keir Starmer confronts them with the hyper realism of the deal reached with the EU.
To his credit, he has given them both notice of his intentions, as well as a new mantra, in “Make Brexit Work”. The first formal outing of this is believed to have been to the CBI on 22nd November 2021. He continued to warm up audiences with it throughout 2022, often when the media’s attention was diverted in alternative political currents. With the Partygate investigations returning to headlines after a Christmas-length hiatus, Sir Keir, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, chose the occasion to include it in his “Contract with the British People” speech on 4th January 2022. When the Chris Pincher controversy engulfed Boris Johnson’s administration in late June, Sir Keir ploughed stoically on, categorically ruling out customs union and single market membership at a Centre for European Reform event hosted by the Irish Embassy in London on 4th July 2022. Advocates for freedom of movement, in an economy drained of lorry drivers and residential care workers, would be further alarmed when Starmer returned to the CBI in November 2022, warning about Britain’s “immigration dependency”.
For their part, each Tory leader is manifestly more perplexed by Brexit than their predecessor. Liz Truss announced plans to relax immigration rules (which Brexit was promised to reverse) and was defenestrated soon after for both this and other reasons too numerous to review here. The current successor, Rishi Sunak, was in turn compelled to quash frenzied reports of proposals for a ‘Swiss-style agreement’. Putting that aside, however, the composure which his administration has adopted with the European Commission is more revealing and in marked contrast with the default adopted by Lord David Frost before he resigned.
Within the Liberal Democrats, 2010 coalition partners with the Tories, the consensus is the same. On BBC R4 Any Questions broadcast 9th December 2022, Layla Moran ruled out re-joining the single market suggesting ‘in the wind’ a timeframe of ten years.
Across the House of Commons therefore, there is broad unanimity about not jeopardising the next appointment with the British electorate in January 2025 at the latest. For Northern Ireland, a more positive engagement by Mr Sunak may facilitate a more harmonious cohabitation of EU Single Market and Brexit Britain than has hitherto been achieved. But regardless of the unexpected collusion of aims in Westminster, so long as there is a functioning trade barrier in the Irish Sea, the threshold for DUP participation in power-sharing will not be reached.
In the other great saga of power-sharing in British political history, the same election that is expected to return Labour to power is already being touted as a referendum on the future of Scotland. Like Northern Ireland, Scotland also voted to remain in the EU and its very remote communities are even more dependent on the EU for markets and labour, particularly in communities hollowed out by emigration to the main centres. Its more ideological voters would not be enthused by promises of more of the same, in the name of cross-party peace in Westminster.
On the Protocol itself either party to the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) can request a review of the trade provisions after four years. Further reviews can take place every four years after the first review. There is no indication of an appetite to exercise that option on the British side, in either main party, both projecting acute vulnerability at the ballot box to Leave voters and their expectations.
However, leaders of all parties, and particularly Labour should be aware of the votes of Northern Ireland’s 90 MLAs. Geoffrey Cox the former Attorney-General and honourable member for Torridge and West Devon set out the position clearly if somewhat obscurely:
“Article 18 plainly makes the continuation of the application of Articles 5 to 10 of the Protocol conditional upon the obtaining of consent by the mechanism described in the Unilateral Declaration”.
These words are drawn from the Position of the Government on the terminability of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland to the Agreement on Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, endorsed by the aforementioned, Geoffrey Cox, in his formal capacity as Attorney General, on 17th October 2019 .
The protocol is formally opposed by a minority in Stormont. But it must not be assumed that the majority supporting it necessarily share comparable agendas. Sinn Féin regards the Protocol as essential to the working of the Good Friday Agreement. Alliance has embraced the Protocol as the best option to sustain power-sharing in Stormont. But if power-sharing cannot be restored until the Protocol is dispatched to history, the UK Government will have no choice but to re-engage with the European Commission.
As November 2024 approaches, when the Democratic Consent Mechanism is scheduled to be engaged (whether power-sharing is restored or not), party positions could be forgiven for becoming more nuanced, their leaders less inclined to whip their MLAs, the MLAs perhaps freer to give their consent to the protocol or not.
Who would blame them, when the greatest threat to the peace process and the Union is manifestly not only the border in the North Channel but also the deteriorating economic and social conditions on the other side and across Great Britain? To some voters in UK, these MLAs would even be lionised.
Nobody should wish a future UK leader ill before he (or she) has even reached the door of #10. Adopting a guise of ambiguity could be invaluable in these troubled times.