The Northern Ireland Protocol: Views from Dublin and London

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Northern ireland protocol

As debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol continues, the World Economic Series’ most recent event at the Mansion House, presented by Public Policy Projects (PPP) and Diplomat Magazine, offered a rare opportunity for representatives of both the UK and Ireland to clarify their respective positions and perspectives.

At a critical juncture in the post-Brexit era, confusion continues to problematise the trade and diplomatic relationships between the UK, Ireland, and the EU. While open and forward-thinking discussions between those parties remain crucial to creating new opportunities for trade in a post-Brexit era, a lack of clarity and a gradual breakdown of previously strong relationships has thus far prevented these sorts of discussions.

Happening only days ahead of the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, the event was attended by over 200 participants and featured discussions between Simon Coveney (Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence), The Rt Hon Sir David Lidington KCB CBE (Former UK Secretary of State), and The Rt Hon Lord Mayor of The City of London Alderman, Vincent Keaveny.

Defining a ‘Global Britain’

The event began with calls for the UK government to define ‘Global Britain’ and provide greater clarity in the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol discussions. Noting distance between the EU and the UK in negotiations, and pressures on the relationship between the two, attendees commented that the peace process in Northern Ireland was being put under considerable strain. However, participants were also quick to note that there was hope. Provided both the UK and the EU could approach negotiations with a renewed interest in cooperation, and a greater awareness of their shared duty in the peace process, there was a shared agreement that current tensions could deescalate.

That will require the UK to clarify its position. Though the ‘Global Britain’ project remains full of promise, it was pointed out that allowing tensions over the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol to simmer has already threatened its success by negatively impacting global perceptions of the UK. It was accordingly recommended that moving forward the UK place a particular emphasis on broadening the scope of political discussions and halting the corrosive impact of current tensions through a firm commitment to international cooperation.

Doing so will require the UK to address the gaps created by the sudden changes precipitated by Brexit and restore consistent working relationships, with Ireland and the EU more broadly. While the UK continues to share many of the same political views of the majority of the EU and its member states (including on climate change and security), there has been a decided turn in the way the UK has dealt with their European counterparts that have created needless discord. Resolving this issue will, as such, not only require a genuine interest from all parties in finding a resolution but also a realistic assessment of diplomatic dynamics in the post-Brexit era.

It will also require action. While assurances of an interest in repairing relationships and establishing new foundations are needed, there is a tangible weariness of unfulfilled promises. Though agreements were made in principle to establish mechanisms for engagement and streamline communications between the UK and Ireland at political and official level in 2017 there has been no significant further action, and the same fate cannot befall the UK’s promises of finding a mutually beneficial solution to the problems posed by the Ireland/NI Protocol.

A partnership of mutual respect

While a spirit of partnership has, in the past, helped the Irish and British governments surmount more difficult challenges there has been a paucity of any such partnership in recent times.

The concerns of the UK must also be acknowledged. In general, speakers agreed that many political decision-makers in Britain perceive the EU’s positioning as a punishment for leaving. This was not the case, but nonetheless, previously close ties with the EU and its member states have become more strained. The EU and its member states are concerned, particularly over how the UK implements its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, may affect the integrity of the single market.

It would seem, as such, that a new atmosphere of mutual respect is needed. Speakers were in agreement that the UK still remains an attractive trade and diplomatic partner, and that EU member states want to maintain a close relationship with the UK. However, in order for those relationships to be established in the post-Brexit era, it is imperative that the UK and EU work together to address the various tensions that have arisen.

Moreover, as time wears on the window for reconciliation would appear to be closing. While speakers commented that the EU still appears to have a genuine interest in finding solutions, the EU’s patience will only last so long. This means that a newfound sense of urgency will have to be taken into the current talks, especially as the alternatives to a compromise are a continuation of the current standoff or the normalisation of icy UK-EU relations – outcomes which will not only be felt by the UK, but Ireland and the EU more broadly.

Laying new foundations

There have been some positive signs. While the rhetoric over the last six months has been particularly difficult, the previous three weeks have seen fruitful engagement between the EU and UK. Serious discussions on the supply of medicines in Northern Ireland and customs arrangements have taken place, meaning that even though agreement is still some way in the distance it should be achievable.

Circumstances have changed in the post-Brexit era and steps must now be taken to lay new foundations for the UK’s relationship with the EU and its member states. Doing so effectively, however, will require mutual trust and a genuine spirit of partnership.