Brexit wounds that had barely begun to heal have been ripped open in Northern Ireland, after yesterday’s leak to the Financial Times that the government is preparing to bring in legislation to “clearly and consciously” override parts of the agreement on Northern Ireland that Boris Johnson agreed with the EU last October in the Withdrawal Agreement.
We won’t know the full details until the Internal Market Bill is published tomorrow. If Downing Street’s response to the leak yesterday is to be believed, the changes could still prove to be little more than “minor clarifications” that will allow the UK to decide for itself which goods will require customs declarations in the event that no trade deal is struck. If this is the case, it will be a huge snub to the EU to pre-emptively clarify something that is for the joint committee to decide, but it will not substantially change either arrangements for the Irish border, nor for Northern Irish businesses.
But that doesn’t change how fundamentally damaging the leak has been to political relations, business confidence, and trust in the British government in Northern Ireland.
One word recurred in a number of speeches in Stormont yesterday: “contempt”. The leak, as nationalist and cross-community politicians said repeatedly, revealed a contempt on the part of the British government for ordinary people in Northern Ireland; for people who want to see the British government take peace on the island of Ireland seriously; and for businesses, who were beginning to engage in good faith with the new arrangements under the Northern Ireland protocol – and who have now been left in the lurch.
But it has also disrupted the uneasy peace that unionists were beginning to make with the Brexit deal. The Withdrawal Agreement has never been acceptable to unionists, who object to the introduction of what is effectively an economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. But they had begun to accept that the matter was closed: the Brexit deal was passed in parliament without their votes, and, as Arlene Foster told Sky News in a recent interview, the time had come to accept the deal as a “reality”. Now, the possibility that the government itself might radically override the NI protocol has emboldened unionist objections, with cautious welcomes from the DUP and other unionist parties, who hope not to be disappointed by the UK government again.
The government can’t please both groups. By reopening the issue of the NI protocol, it is handling an emotional and politically delicate issue with all the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop. Northern Irish businesses need clarity, ordinary people need reassurance, and, whatever way the cookie crumbles, plenty of Northern Irish political parties will be angered or disappointed when the bill is published tomorrow.