The long running standoff between the EU and the UK over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol appears close to a resolution, with the row over the exclusion of Mary Lou McDonald from talks with British foreign secretary James Cleverly a distraction from the core issue.
In fact, the exclusion of McDonald may even help persuade DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson of the good faith of the British government as it moves to bring the long-running dispute with the EU to a close and put the rancour of the past few years behind it. Ultimately, a settlement will depend on whether prime minister Rishi Sunak is willing to stand up to the hardcore Brexiteers in his own party and put the UK on course to reset it relations with the EU.
The story of the entire Brexit process has been the way in which a small minority of MPs in the House of Commons has been able to hold the majority to ransom, with the Conservative government and the Labour opposition unable to find a way to implement the will of a majority in parliament for a good working relationship between the UK and the EU.
There are many reasons for the way in which the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party has achieved such outsize influence but one of them has to be the first-past-the-post electoral system. This allows parties with a minority of votes to win a majority of seats and minorities within parties to exert undue influence.
In Inside the Deal: How the EU Got Brexit Done, a book due to be published later this month, EU official Stefaan De Rynck attempts to puzzle out why the British got it so wrong time after time, and why the Brexiteer minority held such sway.
“EU politicians and civil servants whose own political or administrative careers started in political systems of proportional representation with multi party politics were astonished that British politics did not allow these MPs to find common ground across party divides on issues of such national interest.”
The question now is whether history will repeat itself with a little more than a handful of Brexiteer MPs, backed by the Tory press, managing to thwart the clear desire of Rishi Sunak to find a reasonable compromise with the EU and settle the protocol issue once and for all.
Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson waded in during the week in a speech urging Sunak to press ahead with the legislation devised during his calamitous time in office designed to override the protocol and in the process bin the UK’s international obligations.
Array of problems
Sunak is currently beset with an array of problems arising from the shrinking British economy, a direct if unacknowledged result of Brexit. The wave of public service strikes which is paralysing the country would tax the political skill of any prime minister let alone one with the political inexperience of Sunak.
Paradoxically, though, the scale of the crisis confronting the UK at the moment could enable Sunak to settle the protocol issue because it is a minor matter in the wider scheme of this and as far as the British public is concerned it is of no consequence.
The announcement early this week after a meeting between the EU Commission’s Maros Sefcovic, Cleverly and Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, that agreement had been reached on sharing real-time customs data was a crucial step forward.
This issue had been a key hurdle to finding a path to an agreement that would allow the EU to scale back physical checks on goods flowing between Britain and Northern Ireland. At this stage, there is no pressure on the EU to make any further concessions and it is down to the British and the DUP to come to terms with the reality of what was agreed back in 2019.
The British and Irish governments are putting a great deal of effort into convincing DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson that the compromises being made on the protocol provide the basis of a workable solution to the problems that arose from its initial implementation.
The admission by Leo Varadkar that the initial application of the protocol was stricter than he had anticipated, and the follow-up efforts of Micheál Martin to persuade Donaldson that this week’s agreement between the EU and the UK to begin data-sharing, on is clearly designed to persuade the DUP leader to drop his outright opposition to the measure. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste travelled to Northern Ireland yesterday to reinforce the point.
Clearly the hope of both governments is that a deal on the protocol will be enough to persuade the DUP to drop its objections to participating in the powersharing executive at Stormont so that the institutions can be back in place to make the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement in April.
If a deal is done, Donaldson will have the option of taking ownership of it and declaring victory, or of saying no once more. Either way the protocol is here to stay.