The Northern Ireland Protocol

26 May 2022

The Northern Ireland Protocol

A US envoy?

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

On the surface it all seems very simple. The UK finds that the Northern Irish protocol pulled together to get a withdrawal agreement with the EU doesn’t really work and has put forward an alternative. Brussels refuses to look at the alternative on the basis that the agreement has already been done and that the UK should stick with it. Simple enough then. Practical UK try to find a way through a muddle and Europeans refusing to be flexible. Just what you would expect, really.

Well, maybe, but that version comes from the British press and no doubt there are arguments the other way. There are lots of internal politics too, in particular in Northern Island where the Good Friday agreement gives the Unionists a way of obstructing any compromise, and then the EU with its multinational lines of authority is not the easiest body to deal with either.  And now the Americans pitch in with some half thought through megaphone diplomacy aimed, no doubt, at the ratings of the Democrat Party.

As a result of all this there is a logjam. No doubt the various issues are more complex than they appear on the surface and the first step towards solving them must be to remove them from the macho arena created by the internal politics of the various protagonists. They will not be sorted by big shouty posturing from Liz Truss or the corresponding European demagogues, so the first question is how to remove them from the gladiatorial arena in which each party simply tries to push over the others and then claim domestic credit from the voters. It is here that a respected outsider is needed, just as it was when the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated, the US then stepping up to the need through the work done by President Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell.

As a sovereign nation we are reluctant to invite representatives of foreign powers to take part in our own political wrangles. That is understandable enough but is really a question of misplaced pride rather than logic. After all, we would not hesitate to send envoys to other countries with similar tensions; it is just that as ex-colonial masters we tend to see that sort of thing as unidirectional. But it is time to bury that pride. The alternative of simply letting the wound fester and grow is increasingly unacceptable. There are already reports of the UK being excluded from EU scientific projects, something which would damage the interests of both parties, in order to reinforce the EU’s negotiating position. If the dispute continues as it is going, there will be many similar ploys on both sides. This cannot be the right way to go and steps clearly need to be taken to unwind the tension. A sensible and constructive envoy from a mutual ally could go a long way to do this.

Also, of course, the macho pass has already been sold. The US having taken a direct part in mediating the Good Friday Agreement, it really does not extend its role very far to invite it to participate in the corollaries, something which would also avoid grandstanding of the type indulged in recently by Nancy Pelosi.  Anyway, the time is right for a move of this sort. If it has not done anything else, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine has made it clear how important it is for the UK, the US and the EU to pull together as allies, so we had better get used to acting as friends and working to help solve each other’s problems.

It may be that negotiations on these lines are already going on behind the scenes in which case the difficult question is who the US might appoint. Their politics are riven at the moment in a way which they were not acting in 1997 and it would not be helpful to put in an envoy whose real agenda was to pander to a particular vein of American public opinion. Mitchell was clearly a success as were the other envoys who followed him. If Mr Biden can find someone of the same quality and neutrality he would be doing us all a great favour. Otherwise it is not easy to see how this issue will resolve itself before the next general election.

tile photo: Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

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