When even Jubilee edibles can’t be delivered, the integrity of the UK single market is clearly being undermined
Published: 30 May 2022
hat is this Northern Ireland Protocol row all about?” is a question that causes despair to those of us who are supposed to have answers. Every time people like me think that we’re on top of the subject, we find that the ground has shifted and our patience snaps.
I knew a lot about how EU rules – which assume that anything being shipped to Northern Ireland might reach the single market in the Irish Republic – had led to ridiculous and damaging barriers to trade between two parts of the UK. But then yesterday came the most farcical illustration of the problem of all.
We learned that the Northern Irish – a large percentage of whom are the most patriotic people in the United Kingdom – are unable to receive a Queen’s Platinum Jubilee tin of Walker’s Union Jack shortbread. Only if they are ruthless smugglers, I suspect, can they acquire Marks & Spencer’s Connie the Caterpillar and her corgi pal cake, complete with her crown and special edible jubilee cape. Why?
As Archie Norman, once a Conservative MP and now chairman of Marks & Spencer, has said, the rules are too complex for most firms. Speaking to MPs, he gave this extraordinary example: “At the moment, wagons arriving [from the UK] in the Republic of Ireland have to carry 700 pages of documentation it takes eight hours to prepare. The documentation of some of the descriptors, particularly of animal products, have to be written in Latin … in a certain typeface.”
But again, why? Let me try to explain in as few sentences as possible.
The EU still wants to punish us for voting for Brexit, some people still hope that insisting on the heaviest possible regulatory touch might lead to a second referendum and the Brits begging piteously for readmission and, since the UK negotiators ceased to be mainly Europhiles, there is no trust on either side.
The EU weaponised the Republic when its prime minister was the naïve Leo Varadkar, now deputy prime minister, and though it now has the savvy Michéal Martin until the autumn, when he swaps with Varadkar, there could be an election. Irish nationalism is in an anti-Brit and particularly anti-Boris mode for reasons too numerous to mention, and Varadkar had followed Sinn Fein by insisting that to add extra technical checks to the land border would beget republican violence, which helped persuade the Greens, the Alliance Party and the nationalist SDLP to demand rigorous implementation that produced a sea border.
No one seemed to care that this might beget loyalist violence, and nor did it help mutual understanding that Sinn Fein persuaded Washington that the Protocol underwrites the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), even though David Trimble, who with the late John Hume won the Nobel Peace Prize for being its architect, says that since no unionist party supports the Protocol, the GFA’s underlying principle of cross-community consent is being destroyed.
Now loyalists are very angry and the DUP will prevent an executive forming unless the Protocol is abolished or reformed. But even the Brit-haters on the island of Ireland who denounced the grace periods the UK had unilaterally imposed now recognise change is necessary, and there are clear methods of lancing the boil with e.g. green channels where goods from the mainland going only to Northern Ireland will not have to be checked.
I hope that’s all clear.