!-- consent -->
This morning, Stephen Booth looks at what a deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union on reforming the Northern Irish Protocol might look like.
Previously, I suggested that a deal which ducked the hard governance questions that vex the Democratic Unionists and the European Research Group would not get Stormont back up and running; our editor having earlier suggested that if it could, it might be Rishi Sunak’s preferred option.
We still await the actual shape of the deal, which is apparently awaiting approval from Number Ten. But whilst we wait, it is worth considering the question: what sort of deal should the ERG and DUP accept?
The two most salient points are these. First, Booth is entirely right that “no compromise will be perfect”; there is a lot of potential upside for the UK in the negotiations, and a real danger that we miss them by insisting on an ideal outcome from the off.
Second, the DUP know that Stormont is their best bargaining chip and that they will probably only get to play it once.
It is their walkout, combined with the pressure created by the looming 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, that goes a long way to explain why their concerns are suddenly being taken seriously by the sort of people who back in 2017 thought Theresa May should, as Tony Connelly reported for RTÉ in 2017:
“…do a brave and risky thing, and say to the DUP, listen you guys you’ve got nowhere else to go anyway, so this is what’s going to happen?”
That quote should be printed out and stuck to the monitor of anyone who speculates about why the DUP are being so stubborn about returning to the Assembly – alongside their poll ratings, at least.
So the question is, what sort of outcome could hit the sweet spot: deliverable now, but worth Sir Jeffrey Donaldson cashing in his most valuable bargaining chip?
One answer suggested to me this week was: anything that delivers a proper dual-standards regime in Northern Ireland and undermines the fundamental principles of the Single Market in the Province.
The logic is this. At present, even were the Protocol being properly enforced – which it never has been and never will be – it nonetheless represents a fracturing of the full-fat Single Market, which is supposed to cover goods, services, capital, and labour; Ulster is only in the Single Market for goods.
Whilst it isn’t perfectly formed by any means – Britain was often frustrated by the slow development of the single market in services, for example – it is not supposed to get broken up like that; witness David Cameron’s unhappy efforts to negotiate a deal which might, from Brussels’ perspective, have undermined the single market in labour by restricting freedom of movement.
From the EU’s perspective, therefore, the status quo is problematic, and it will only get more problematic the more exceptional Northern Ireland’s situation becomes. It is harder to plead the inviolable nature of EU institutions to countries such as Poland, which might seek special arrangements on matters judicial, when a high-profile counter-example exists.
Returning to the current negotiations, the EU has apparently conceded the principle that goods from the mainland which enter Northern Ireland and stay there should be treated differently to those travelling onward into the Single Market proper.
NEW: The EU will accept the principle that GB goods shipped to NI and staying there should be treated differently to goods moving south into the single market and as such will agree to a green and red lane model at ports, as proposed by the UK, a senior EU official tells @rtenews— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) February 6, 2023
This concessions has been made easier by accumulated evidence that actual seepage of such goods across the border is low; London can also point out that large parts of the Protocol have never been implemented, and if that was going to cause dangerous distortions in the Single Market we would have seen them by now.
Thus, the idea of red lanes and green lanes. This idea is not guaranteed to give Donaldson and his allies a deal worth accepting, but it could.
A de minimis version, which created static carve-outs for a fixed range of problematic goods, would not be worth it. Northern Ireland would remain subject to an ever-growing body of law over which it had no political input, the function of which would be to gradually de-align its economy from that of the rest of the country.
But imagine instead a version like the one I outlined last Monday: EU regulations (with ECJ oversight) only applying to those firms exporting into the Single Market; a default of unfettered trade between Ulster and the mainland, with data-led enforcement for problem cases; and local businesses subject to British law by default (not least so they’re on fair competitive firms with mainland competitors).
This obviously would be ideal, rooted as it is in the May-era capitulation on the idea that the Belfast Agreement somehow demanded no change whatsoever to north-south trade. But it would adequately solve the problems on governance and east-west trade, and prevent the gradual dragging of the Ulster economy away from that of Great Britain.
(Crucially, the only way such a deal would ever fly is if you had the granular data to allow for targeted interventions and hands-off approach to the frontier; shooting down such data arrangements on sovereignty grounds is one way the ERG and DUP could make the perfect the enemy of the good.)
Sturgeon still fending off scandals
Another week, and still no sign that the row over Nicola Sturgeon’s controversial Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill is panning out well for the First Minister.
A new poll from IPSOS finds that not only do Scots still back Alister Jack’s intervention by a whopping 50 to 33 per cent, but the Scottish Daily Express reports that almost a third of SNP voters back the Secretary of State’s decision to block the Bill.
This is a valuable reminder that whilst the Nationalists continue to enjoy a hegemonic grip on Scottish politics for the moment, by no means are all their voters constitutional purists. The SNP has secured its huge wins in large part by separating the question of voting for them from that of independence (at least before polling day, after it is another matter).
Meanwhile Alex Salmond is clearly trying to exploit the divisions, warning his successor that a legal challenge against Jack’s decision to use s35 – which she has so far signally failed to mount – would damage the cause of independence.
His Alba Party tried to peel away the Nationalists’ right flank, but without much success; high-profile allies of his with strong gender-critical views, such as Joanna Cherry, remained in the SNP, albeit totally side-lined by the leadership. Is the former First Minister angling for an exodus?
Meanwhile, Sturgeon is coming under renewed pressure over the longstanding question of a £107,000 loan to the SNP from its Chief Executive, Peter Murrell – who happens to be her husband. This week she claimed not to remember when she learned about it; fortuitous, as the Herald reports that “broke reporting rules on three separate occasions”.
This story ties into other SNP finance issues: as this column noted in December:
“The loan apparently coincided with the start of a police investigation into whether the SNP had committed fraud by raising over £600,000 to fight a referendum campaign and then, in the absence of a referendum, spending it on other things.”
Meanwhile, fresh evidence that the Nationalists’ phalanx-like discipline is breaking down as the leader of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest council, demanded that the Scottish Government stop meddling in local authority budgets. Long-term readers of this column may recall that a common SNP tactic has been freezing council tax and topping up council budgets with ring-fenced funds, squeezing the latter’s autonomy.
Since 2014, Scottish politics has seemed to pose the question of what happens when an unstoppable force (the SNP) meets an immovable object (public opinion on independence). It looks increasingly like the former will stop before the latter moves.
Scottish Independence Voting Intention:— British Electoral Politics (@electpoliticsuk) February 7, 2023
NO: 46% (+4)
YES: 40% (-7)
Don’t Know: 14% (+3)
NO: 53% (+6)
YES: 47% (-6)
Via @YouGov, On 23-26 January,
Changes w/ 9 December.