If Brexit was the grand disruptor opening up a chasm in relationships between these islands, the Northern Ireland Protocol was engineered to bridge it.
So it was no surprise to hear Foreign Minister Simon Coveney saying it was regrettable that his opposite number in Britain, Liz Truss, seems intent on burning it. The unilateral action was “damaging to trust”, he said.
“At a time when people in Northern Ireland have chosen their elected representatives and want to get the executive back up and running, the path chosen by the British government is of great concern,” he added.
London has effectively set a stop-watch for a couple of weeks. If it does not get what it wants it will bring in laws that break the protocol, a mechanism that Britain not only signed off on, but actually devised. Both Dublin and Brussels are deeply alarmed at the move.
As Mr Coveney put it: “I made clear that breaking international law is not the answer to solving protocol issues.” The only means for breaking the deadlock is to get back to the table and smooth out the rough edges. Negotiations rarely run well when conducted in an atmosphere of threat.
The Downing Street position seems to be: We are prepared to be super-reasonable and ultra-accommodating providing you give us exactly what we want. And if you don’t, we’re going to take it anyway. Such behaviour is more likely to harden rather than soften positions in Europe. Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic was quick to criticise Ms Truss’s plan, warning Brussels could retaliate.
If the UK proceeds with the bill, the EU will respond with “all measures at its disposal”, he said.
The prospect of a wounding and needless trade war with the bloc have heightened. Boris Johnson has indulged the DUP in playing the victim. The narrative is being manipulated to portray themselves as blameless dupes of circumstance. It’s always someone else’s bad behaviour that is the cause of their distress. Yet it was they that backed Brexit, and it was their government that brought in the protocol. Giving credence to contrived grievances feeds the delusion that agreements can be broken at will, new ones ordered on demand.
A wake-up call is badly needed. The “post-truth” age has not yet dawned, alternative facts have not yet replaced real ones.
A negotiating strategy can accommodate an amount of feint and retreat; but when overdone it becomes play acting. It is disingenuous for Mr Johnson and Ms Truss to claim they are breaking the protocol in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement. It was the Brexit bombshell that rattled the pillars of that historic accord; the protocol being a necessary buttress.
It has been argued that ignorance is not bad faith, but persistence in ignorance is. You don’t take a fence down until you understand why it was put up. Litigation or a trade war will serve neither the UK nor the EU. More reasoning and less histrionic grandstanding would make for a constructive and welcome change.