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Stephen Collins: Truss has a chance to reach a deal on Northern Ireland protocol

Giving senior roles to ERG hardliners might protect her from attack in the event of a compromise agreement

The decision of newly installed British prime minister Liz Truss to pull back from an immediate confrontation with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol provides a glimmer of hope that the long-running standoff may, after all, be amenable to a negotiated solution.

At this stage it is impossible to know whether Truss’s move is simply a tactic designed to give the appearance of being open to compromise or actually represents a genuine desire to find a way through the difficulties that have bedevilled the protocol since its inception.

Before her elevation to Downing Street, it was widely expected that Truss would from the start follow Boris Johnson’s example and engage in a long-running confrontation with the EU to shore up support in domestic politics, particularly as she was the minister who devised the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill giving the British government the right to set aside the deal unilaterally.

Johnson’s regular confrontations with the EU were designed to appease his hardline Brexiteer MPs and the Tory media at times when his leadership was under threat. Truss has now given prominent Brexiteers leading roles in her government, with James Cleverly at the Foreign Office, Chris Heaton-Harris as Northern Ireland secretary and Steve Baker as his junior minister.


One interpretation of the appointments is that Truss is gearing up for confrontation with the EU, but bringing the hardliners inside the tent could also be regarded as a clever move to protect her flank in the event of a compromise.

Truss has said all along that while she wants to see changes in the protocol, her favoured option is a negotiated settlement and she repeated that ambition in her first outing as prime minister in the House of Commons. If she is serious, she now has an opportunity to pursue a deal without suffering serious political damage in Westminster.

One big advantage for Truss in reaching an agreed solution is that it would enable her to mend fences with the UK’s European allies in response to the shared threat posed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The alternative would be to provoke dissent within the Western alliance in the face of Putin’s aggression.

A deal would also enable her to reset the relationship between Downing Street and the White House. In a phone call with the prime minister on her first day in office President Biden stressed the importance of reaching an agreement with the EU over the protocol issue. According to the White House’s account of the call, the two discussed their “shared commitment to protecting the gains of the Belfast Agreement and the importance of reaching a negotiated agreement with the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol”.

Higher standing

A settlement that resolved the conflict between the UK and the EU over the protocol would give Truss far higher standing with the US administration than her predecessor was ever able to achieve. That could even pave the way for the realisation of the Brexiteer dream of a trade agreement with the United States.

A more immediate issue for Truss, as it is for all European leaders, is how to protect electorates from exorbitant energy bills through the coming winter without piling up an unsustainable level of debt. Faced with the huge scale of this challenge, a bitter row over the protocol is the last thing either side needs.

Finding a compromise will not be easy but the first requirement in the search is that the two sides genuinely want an agreement. In his message of congratulation to the new prime minister, Taoiseach Micheál Martin expressed the hope that the period ahead could be used to prioritise EU-UK engagement, and “to reach agreed outcomes on the issues around implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol”. Last weekend he was emphatic that the EU would respond positively to a serious and genuine signal from the new British prime minister that her priority was to reach an agreed outcome.

The nature of that EU response will be crucial. The belief in Brussels is that all of the concessions to date have come from its side. EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic has already offered a compromise package, which he insisted met 80 per cent of the objections to the protocol. Another big move will only come if it is clear that it will be reciprocated by the UK.

One solution which has been put forward by the British is the creation of green and red channels to differentiate between British goods destined for use in Northern Ireland and shipments bound for onward transportation across the Irish Border.

Goods arriving through the green channel would be freed of red tape, while the red channel would retain the checks and inspections required by the protocol.

The EU has previously rejected this proposal as unworkable, but some variation of it could surely provide the basis of an agreement to get over the difficulties created by the protocol while protecting the EU single market. Ultimately, agreement will depend on whether there is a sufficient level of goodwill on both sides. By taking a less belligerent line than expected, Truss has at least taken a step in the right direction.