Unionists can be forgiven for being wary about the sudden outburst of ‘positive mood music’ from the Government and its Irish counterpart in the talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Over the past few years we have seen London talk a big game on Ulster more than once, only to back down more often than not. Solemn deadlines after which ministers would supposedly have no choice but to trigger Article 16 came and went.
Given that the latest chatter about a breakthrough comes just after Liz Truss made a bonfire of her political capital in the aftermath of the mini-Budget, there is suspicion amongst some Conservative MPs that what’s actually about to happen is that the Government is going to give in. Yesterday’s story in the Sun suggesting that “Truss could give EU judges oversight in Northern Ireland forever to get Brussels” has done nothing to allay such concerns.
Will this fly? Given the fractious state of the parliamentary party and the fragility of the Commons majority, a determined band of MPs could cause the Government a lot of trouble if they didn’t like the result of the negotiations, and the role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point for the more constitutionally-conscious Brexiteers. One senior member of the ERG told ConHome:
“Given the history of all this, we will obviously be following the progress of these negotiations extremely closely. However, there is no point whatsoever in attempting to park the issue of ECJ authority in Northern Ireland, as that is at the very heart of the entire issue.”
But will the ERG speak with one voice on this? It generally has in the past. Yet only two days ago Sir Bill Cash – convenor of the group’s ‘star chamber’ of lawyers – penned an op-ed for the Sunday Telegraph in which he urged Tories to unite behind the Prime Minister against the ‘anti-growth coalition’. Cash has not previously made a name for himself as a loyalist; Northern Ireland doesn’t warrant a mention in his piece.
Of course the ERG aren’t the only sceptical actor – even more important will be the Democratic Unionist Party, without whose cooperation Ulster’s devolved institutions can’t stagger back to their feet. At their conference last week Sir Jeffrey Donaldson struck a robust stance.
On this site he previously played up the importance of the Government’s NI Protocol Bill. It will be interesting to see how ministers respond to its expected savaging in the House of Lords, especially if the negotiations are supposedly going well. There will be many calls for the Bill’s passage to be paused as a show of good faith.
Even if it passes, in itself the Bill does nothing to remedy the sea border – it merely grants ministers the power to act unilaterally to remedy it if they so wish. The Government would still need to have both a sound strategy and the will to pick that battle with Brussels. Current circumstances don’t fill one with confidence that this is the case.
Regardless, it seems clear that any climbdown on the role of the ECJ will further swell the ranks of the Government’s opponents on its own benches. Ministers minded to cut and run in hope of a quiet life had best make sure, as LBJ put it, that they know how to count.