Give Boris Johnson a fresh chance to prove his sincerity and commitment. We have nothing to lose and much to gain

Ahead of his day in Northern Ireland, much media comment is focusing on Boris Johnson’s announcement of draft legislation later this week to unilaterally amend parts of the Protocol. This is both inevitable and regrettable.  Northern Ireland’s welfare is far more important than the abstruse game of higher politics. Boris Johnson’s article in the Belfast Telegraph deserves to be cautiously welcomed. It suggests a new level of engagement in all level of NI affairs even encroaching on  Stormont’s competences.

Much of it is just as controversial as the protocol.  It embraces commitment to campaigning for the Union balanced by “rigorous impartiality in government” and the British –Irish co-guarantor role in the GFA, and includes legislation on the legacy and Irish culture as promised. Unless  it becomes  just another one day Boris wonder, it answers  the  familiar criticism that  Northern Ireland is  no more than a pawn in a  British game with the EU that impresses only the Tory right wing.

In the article and the visit Johnson has the chance of building a new platform of trust.   The key test will be if he can – not today or tomorrow but soon –  argue the DUP whom he has more comprehensively shafted than anybody else – back into the Executive. He comes with a convincing hard message, that the Protocol will not be torn up and that legislation to change it unilaterally is a long term contingency. His strong preference is for amending it in ways that he now claims he always  knew would be necessary but is now more urgent because of  post Covid conditions, a war in Europe and above all,  a cost of living  crisis that transcends all borders.  Let’s follow his thread.


I also want to use my visit to affirm some core principles about the UK Government’s approach to Northern Ireland.

Thirty-two years ago, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a speech which many see as playing an important role in the initiation of the peace process.

Peter Brooke argued that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. Not no strategic or economic interest — but no selfish strategic or economic interest. It was a concept that became a pillar of the peace process — the basis of “rigorous impartiality” and “the principle of consent”, from the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement itself.

Times have changed, at home and overseas. But our commitment to these principles is as strong as ever.

Equally I want to be clear that this Government is not neutral on the Union.

Indeed I was heartened to hear that Sir Keir Starmer made clear in a recent interview here that the Labour Party under his leadership would campaign for the Union, should there ever be a border poll.

There should be nothing controversial or surprising about that. The Government’s commitment to the Union is above politics…

In today’s debates about Brexit and the Protocol, let us embrace that hybridity. Let us make it work.

We stand above all else for the 1998 Agreement. Its three strands. Its commitment to harmonious relations across all these islands.

We do so, first and foremost, as co-signatories and as co-guarantors. And as partners of the Irish Government.

And we do so, next, with a commitment to work with the democratically elected parties in Northern Ireland, whom I will see on Monday.

That means abiding by the rules that have previously been agreed, including those around the title of First Minister.

So I want to repeat my congratulations to Sinn Fein as the largest party. Respect for the rights and aspirations of all communities are an essential part of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

And I think it is testimony to the path that Sinn Fein have taken from 1998 that Michelle O’Neill is now awarded the position of First Minister. I have no doubt we will work together well.

Taken together, what the election results tell me is that the basis for successful power-sharing and stability is actually enhanced. Whichever way you cut it, there is a large majority for making Northern Ireland work.

And every single party and MLA has heard the same message from their constituents.

Focus on everyday issues. Schools. Hospitals. Cost of living.

So it is time for all of the local parties to get back to Stormont. Elect a Speaker. Create an Executive. Get back to work.


But the 1998 Agreement bestows other commitments on the British Government that go beyond its position as a co-guarantor.

One of those is to take difficult decisions: to assume a burden of responsibility, and indeed unpopularity, when consensus cannot be reached.

That is why we will deliver on three pre-existing commitments in the coming weeks.

We will take forward the Language and Culture Package agreed as part of the New Decade New Approach agreement, thereby addressing an issue that has prevented the formation of the Executive in the past.

We will intervene to ensure that women and girls have access to abortion services in Northern Ireland that are their legal right, following the failure of the Executive to deliver this.

And this week we will introduce into Parliament new measures to deal with the legacy of the past. These are different from those in our Command Paper last year. We have listened to many people in recent months and reflected on what we heard. Dealing with the past will still require difficult decisions but there will be no blanket amnesty. Immunity will only be available to those who co-operate and prosecutions could follow for those who do not.


It is because of these complexities that the Protocol exists. It is why the Protocol was agreed in good faith. And it is why those who want to scrap the Protocol, rather than seeking changes, are focusing on the wrong thing.

And the Protocol involves other responsibilities which also need to be lived up to by all sides, including the commitment to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.

We cannot allow the impression that one strand is deemed more important than others; or that EU custom codes — designed for vast container ships coming from Shanghai to Rotterdam, not supermarket lorries from Liverpool to Belfast — somehow trump everything else.

But there is no disguising the fact that the delicate balance created in 1998 has been upset. One part of the political community in Northern Ireland feels like its aspirations and identity are threatened by the working of the Protocol.

And the Protocol involves other responsibilities which also need to be lived up to by all sides, including the commitment to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.

We cannot allow the impression that one strand is deemed more important than others; or that EU custom codes — designed for vast container ships coming from Shanghai to Rotterdam, not supermarket lorries from Liverpool to Belfast — somehow trump everything else.

We must remember that all parties to the Protocol made a commitment to be willing to revisit, adapt and change these arrangements over time — and to protect the internal market of the UK.

In the absence of change, the prior commitments made by the British Government — to protect all three strands of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, to protect economic rights and parity of esteem — are coming into sharper focus.

Every unionist representative campaigned against the Protocol, as currently constituted. More importantly, every party, across the divide, seeks mitigations and change. None support a zealous zero risk approach to its implementation.

None wants to see grace periods terminated, as the EU insist they must be in return for limited mitigations elsewhere. Some feel that their economic rights as members of the United Kingdom are threatened, which the 1998 Agreement is supposed to protect. The simple reason for this is that the East-West dimension — by far and away the principal artery in Northern Ireland’s economic life — is taking too much of the strain.

Strand 3 of the Agreement, which promised the “harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of the relationship among the people of these islands”, is not functioning as it must.

And Strands 1 and 2 — of equal importance and mutually dependent — are now being negatively impacted too.

Many things have changed since the Protocol was agreed. It was designed in the absence of a Trade and Cooperation Agreement and when it was unclear one would be agreed. It has not been adapted to reflect the realities of the TCA.

It was designed before a global pandemic and a European war which has created a cost of living crisis on a scale not seen for half a century.

For there even to be a question about the fast availability of medicines or medical testing in Northern Ireland (between two constituent parts of the same National Health Service) is incompatible with the post-Covid era.

For the Chancellor of the Exchequer to say in his Spring Statement that people in Northern Ireland could not be granted the same benefits in terms of tax and VAT as those in the rest of the same country is a serious issue. It means that our ability to assist with post-Covid recovery and — moreover, the long-term economic development of Northern Ireland — is restricted.

We have been told by the EU that it is impossible to make the changes to the Protocol text to actually solve these problems in negotiations — because there is no mandate to do so.

We will always keep the door wide open to genuine dialogue. And we will continue to protect the single market — as it has been protected throughout the existence of the Protocol so far — and the open border with the Republic of Ireland which will always be of paramount importance.

There is without question a sensible landing spot in which everyone’s interests are protected. Our shared objective must be to the create the broadest possible cross-community support for a reformed Protocol in 2024.

I hope the EU’s position changes. If it does not, there will be a necessity to act.

So what next on the protocol?

Johnson implies that the Commission’s mandate should be changed to increase flexibility but he has not called specifically for it to be extended by EU leaders. This may because if he did so now he would immediately get a dusty answer. Any such change will require giving priority to intense quiet diplomacy over unilateral UK action which further erodes EU trust.

He appears to set a two year time frame for finding the “landing zone.” This is much too long for the good of Northern Ireland. It contains no magic bullet to get the DUP off the hook. He implied appeal  “trust me ”  will meet with the predictable response, Much more work is needed to build trust. Will this emerge on the follow up “assessment and next steps” promised after today’s talks? Unlikely. What we’re looking at surely is a talks process involving all parties and both governments far more focused than the lackadaisical approach after the 2017 shut down. It must be accompanied by renewed granular negotiations with the EU. A formal consultative role for the Assembly should  emerge quickly and make a real difference to both set of negotiations.

Boris Johnson has made no fresh commitments in his article but at least he has pulled them together. He must be held to this higher level of engagement.



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