Northern Ireland Protocol: Protect the peace process and limit the damage that Brexit has wrought

In the absence of proper leadership from London it is up to the ‘grown-ups in the room’ to step in and do what is right for the people of Northern Ireland, argues Seb Dance
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By Seb Dance

Former Labour MEP for London, Seb Dance was a Vice-Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and Deputy Leader of the UK Labour MEP Delegation

02 Aug 2021

I will never forget the moment when I sat in on a delegation of family members of victims of the Omagh bombing, visiting Hillsborough Castle.

I was a special adviser to the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time, and amidst the grand paintings and plush upholstery of the drawing room a group of Catholic and Protestant mothers spoke together as one with such profound courage and dignity.

Their one, overriding determination was that no-one should have to go through the pain and devastation that they had; that others’ sons and daughters should grow up in a Northern Ireland where sectarian hatred and indiscriminate violence would play no part.

It was this dignity and complete absence of any loathing towards the perpetrators that stood in extreme contrast to a Twitter thread posted by former No10 aide and Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings last month.

He described the Irish protocol as a side-show and ultimately an irrelevance that the EU had manipulated, and that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had allowed to get in the way of the proper Brexit that he and his Vote Leave cabal would have implemented.

It is one thing to be completely ignorant about all matters relating to the Troubles, but it is quite another to have learnt nothing from the Peace Process and the profound effort that was put in by all sides to ensuring there could be a lasting settlement.

"It is one thing to be completely ignorant about all matters relating to the Troubles, but it is quite another to have learnt nothing from the Peace Process and the profound effort that was put in by all sides to ensuring there could be a lasting settlement"

Ultimately, it was a depressing reflection of a reality that has been around for a long time: that few people understand Northern Ireland.

Early in the Brexit process we were told time and time again by proponents of Brexit that the existence of the Common Travel Area, which preceded the UK and Ireland’s membership of the EEC in 1973, would override any need for a border in Ireland and the Peace Process was therefore not in jeopardy.

Of course, it was the creation of the Single Market in 1992 that created the premise for the ultimate removal of any physical infrastructure at the border and which, ultimately, established the preconditions for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement itself.

That Agreement effectively erased the border - physically and metaphorically. It no longer mattered, for all intents and purposes, that there was an international border to the south. You could be British, Irish or both and live your life on either side without any hinderance.

The struggle for Irish unity or the fight to preserve the Union with Britain continued of course as before. But the lack of physical presence of the border meant this fight could be transformed from an armed struggle into a battle of ideas.

A new generation of people born in Northern Ireland has since arisen for whom the idea of armed conflict is a complete anathema. Brexit has changed everything. It necessitates the creation of a border.

"Early in the Brexit process we were told time and time again by proponents of Brexit that the existence of the Common Travel Area, which preceded the UK and Ireland’s membership of the EEC in 1973, would override any need for a border in Ireland and the Peace Process was therefore not in jeopardy"

That border can either go between Northern Ireland and the Republic, effectively re-imposing the infrastructure whose removal was so essential to create peace, or it can go between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, alienating most Unionists in the province for whom being an integrated part of the United Kingdom is an essential component of who they are.

In either case the border will create resentment and distrust in communities who benefitted from the settlement the Peace Process created.

I am no fan of former UK Prime Minister Theresa May, but she at least sweated the detail and saw the problem. She stated that no British Prime Minister could ever sign up to a division of the UK and an internal customs border between NI and GB.

But she also recognised the need to avoid a border on the island of Ireland. An all-UK customs union would be the solution, and alignment on standards the obvious way to avoid any checks between GB and NI.

It took her successor, a man who also described an internal UK customs border as “a capitulation worse than Suez” to decide to implement it anyway to “get Brexit done” and win his election.

This he did, and in so doing silenced virtually all opposition to Brexit in the process. Fantasies can be very appealing. But we now learn what we have long suspected - that he had no intention of implementing the protocol, but that he signed it because he hopes to chance this, like he has most other things in life.

"Despite its enormous success, peace is a fragile creature that must be sensibly and maturely protected in the interests of all. The investment of energy and political goodwill that is needed from Whitehall to make this work now is enormous. I just do not see how this UK Prime Minister has the intellectual maturity or capacity for patience to deliver what’s needed"

Which brings me back to those victims’ mothers on that day at Hillsborough. It was very early on in my tenure as a special adviser and, despite being a dual UK-Irish citizen, I had very little personal understanding of the real nature of the Troubles above and beyond the obvious.

That day I saw another side of humanity that I will never forget. I saw a capacity to forgive and to heal that can surely overcome any adversity. But it was also wrapped in a warning: that these people would not tolerate, and certainly deserved more than, shabbiness or political tomfoolery.

They were dignified, but tough with it. Peace would not be maintained through the usual theatrics of party politics. Despite its enormous success, peace is a fragile creature that must be sensibly and maturely protected in the interests of all.

The investment of energy and political goodwill that is needed from Whitehall to make this work now is enormous. I just do not see how this UK Prime Minister has the intellectual maturity or capacity for patience to deliver what’s needed.

There is no comparison to be made between the self-obsessed clown in Number Ten and the victims’ families I met that day at Hillsborough. In the absence of proper leadership from Downing Street, it is up to the ‘grown-ups in the room’ to step in and do what is right for the people of Northern Ireland.

My call to them: defend the protocol, protect the peace process and limit the damage that Brexit has wrought as much as possible.

Read the most recent articles written by Seb Dance - Keeping Europe united

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