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David Campbell Bannerman

Why the Northern Ireland protocol threatens the Good Friday Peace Agreement

When I worked for the British Government on the Northern Ireland Peace Process in the 1990s I was on the IRA death list. As I was celebrating my new appointment as Special Adviser to the Northern Ireland Secretary, I heard the Canary Wharf bomb go off – I was living near London’s Tower Bridge and all the shop windows bent with the blast and that terrible wrenching unmistakeable noise, which I never wish to hear again.

Yet, when I was a Member of the European Parliament, I could sit in some meetings next to a convicted IRA bombmaker, and fellow MEP, Martina Anderson, but we were equally committed to democratic resolution and to the Peace Process, as was Martin McGuinness, a former IRA Commander, and then Deputy of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who was an enthusiast for making peace work, after a long political journey. As is often said, ‘you make peace with your enemies not your friends.’

Our political views on the British Union remain very different clearly, yet now we can debate and resolve our differences peacefully, and save at least 300 lives being lost every year. That is the great achievement of the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement, that my boss Sir Patrick Mayhew helped initiate, though I worked closely with Labour’s wonderful Mo Mowlam and Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrat colleagues on a common cause.

When the Peace Talks started, I was standing behind then British Prime Minister John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister). Bruton mentioned a murdered victim of the troubles, without realising the murderer was sitting opposite him, right in his eyeline. Such are the extraordinary aspects of peacemaking.

It was later I sent in a paper that recommended a means of decommissioning (putting beyond use) terrorist weapons by having nominated observers, often religious leaders, watch their destruction and verify it to political parties – I knew groups like the IRA and loyalist terrorists would rather fight than ‘surrender’ weapons, so this was a respectful means of destroying weapons. I called it the ‘Haystack Option’ – because traditionally pitchforks and rifles would be put out of use in haystacks. It was later adopted, and with guns out the way meaningful talks could continue.

The EU played a helpful and supportive role, mostly financially, as the political aspects had to be done by the governments, Northern Ireland political parties and groups. It is significant that, post Brexit, the UK continues to pay into the EU’s new PEACE PLUS programme fund, that aids initiatives that aide peace in Northern Ireland. The UK announced in September it was investing £730 million in this fund, nearly 75% of its budget, demonstrating close EU/UK cooperation post Brexit.

So, when we come to present events, and the vexed issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and relations between the EU and the UK over this aspect, and the series of meetings between UK Brexit Minister Lord Frost and EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, I am very mindful of the political sensitivities of borders and checks on the border.

I declare my view that the Protocol in its current form is unworkable, and if it is retained unreformed, serious violence will result and ultimately the return to the Troubles. Had the Protocol been lightly enacted and enforced from the start, the political problems may not have built up to this level, but knowing Northern Ireland as I do, and having worked with all its parties, the situation there is indeed critical.

We saw recently an armed unit seize a bus and set in on fire – this is a disturbing echo of a dark past. There was a harsh lesson I learnt as Special Adviser: when the Northern Ireland political process has a serious wobble, someone dies. If the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) goes through with its threat to withdraw from Good Friday Agreement meetings and withdraws from the Northern Ireland Assembly over the Protocol, then that is a very serious wobble indeed.

My criticism of the EU is that it has not understood the political sensitivities. The Protocol was primarily designed to avoid the tensions from one side of the Community: the Nationalist/Republican side, and as a big part of that to avoid a North-South border on the island of Ireland. The checks are done well away from that border, and that is working well. It is worth saying that the island already boasts a currency border (£/Euro), tax border (VAT/corporation tax), road signs border (miles/kilometres) and that for cattle the same shared Sanitary & Phyto Sanitary (SPS) system pre Brexit (Ian Paisley famously saying: “the people are British but the cattle are Irish”!).

But what was not envisaged was an East/West border – actually within the United Kingdom. Yes, de facto Northern Ireland might remain in the EU Customs Union for agricultural and industrial goods, in order to avoid the North/South border, but it was thought checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be minimal and go pretty much unnoticed. This has not been the case – when 20% of all EU border checks take place around a market worth 1.3% EU market something is seriously wrong. Not allowing British mud on tractors to cross the border, or denying the people there British approved medicines or GB suppliers giving up due to the hassle, disadvantages the citizens of Northern Ireland. How would any of you feel if there was this kind of serious internal border within your own country? Between Poland and Silesia, Flanders and Wallonia, for example?

The EU has seen this in its trademark legalistic and bureaucratic way, more interested in protecting the Single Market than political peace. Yes, the UK did sign the Protocol, but it did so in the expectation of common sense, light touch controls not this heavy handed, rigid approach.

Frankly, if you are going to smuggle illicit goods into the Single Market, would you really head towards the Atlantic on the furthest Western point of the EU in Ireland to do so? Eastern Europe checks are far more important. President Biden and the US Administration also have an historically slanted approach (whilst seeking to be even handed) – I met Speaker Nancy Pelosi whilst in London. They have a one Community perspective to the Protocol – that of safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement by avoiding a North-South border.

Not nearly enough weight is being given to the other side of the Community – the pro-British Unionists and the DUP who are in Government in Northern Ireland. Belatedly, it is now clear that this far harder than expected and negative de facto East-West border is having politically destabilising effects in Northern Ireland. The Unionist Community sees the Protocol now as a betrayal of the British Union, and their right to self-determination, a core principle of the Good Friday Agreement, then we have a major problem. When a Nobel Peace Prize winner such as Lord David Trimble, who I know, and was central to the success of the Peace Process, strongly warns along such lines, then it is time to act.

Whilst the concessions offered by Mr Sefcovic are welcome and show a recognition of the problem and an intent to address it, there is still a lot of red tape attached to reduced checks which demonstrate Northern Ireland is being hived off from the rest of the United Kingdom.

If Article 16 is invoked, please disregard that nonsense about breaking international law, for Article 16 is IN the Protocol and allows such suspension on grounds of it causing serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” or trade diversion, and there if proof of all of that, and the same Protocol allows the Protocol to be overturned by the Northern Ireland Assembly in a few years anyway.

My own solution is for Northern Ireland to leave the EU Customs Union for goods and for a theoretical North-South border to exist; just using the current existing customs facilities in Northern Ireland well away from the actual border for North/South traffic, which is much smaller by the way than East-West traffic.

NO ONE wants a hard border. In the all the debate and heat about having a border not one individual or party argued for such a border. So, no return to barriers and peak capped border officials would occur. I think that given all the practical difficulties, and frankly the huge time resources spent by EU and UK government officials, that the easiest thing is a straight, normal Free Trade Agreement – the TCA covering all of the UK, with an invisible, sensibly regulated and enforced North/South border. The border issue was always a red herring not a red flag.

In my view, the EU negotiators and a pro EU Fifth Column within Theresa May’s negotiating team worked together to weaponise the border issue, when there was no issue as there is no issue over currency, taxes or road sign borders. I wrote three papers addressing this, and discussed them in Number 10, and genuinely was at a loss why such a simple solution could not be followed.

In reality, they didn’t want a practical solution, their true agenda was to keep the UK in the EU’s regulatory orbit – if part of the UK remained in the Customs Union, then the whole of the UK may have to follow and have to apply slavishly EU rules and regulations. The UK would not truly have left the EU to become an independent nation with its own customs union, and could be forced slowly to re-join.

Whether we end up with a slimline inoffensive new Protocol, along the lines Lord Frost has set out, or we make the decisive break, and weather the worse – a trade war, as the EU had with the USA over steel and Airbus, and talk of the UK planning to withdraw from EU science programmes such as Horizon, Euratom and Copernicus, and create British alternatives, saving £15 billion of continued contributions, is the issue just now.

Better I believe to revert to an all-UK Trade & Cooperation Agreement with the EU – meaning with Northern Ireland out of the Customs Union and a core part of the UK deal. I think the amended TCA route should have already happened, and would actually be much simpler and easier than the Doommongers made us believe, given that three times as much trade is NI/GB that NI/Republic of Ireland, and can be as simple as controls between Sweden and Norway are, with sensible trusted trader schemes and light checks.

But we do need to resolve this issue now. Because none of us, irrespective of our views on Brexit, the EU or policing the Single Market, wants to see a return to violence in Northern Ireland. That peace, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, is a precious and highly valued thing. As I can personally testify.


David Campbell Bannerman - Former Conservative MEP for East of England 2009-19; Special Adviser on the Northern Ireland Peace Process for UK Government 1996-97