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16 June 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:01am

The Irish border question is unanswerable. The only viable option is to stop asking it

An issue as complex and sensitive as the Northern Ireland protocol won't get fixed during a weekend in Cornwall. 

By Philip Collins

To Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, goes the award for the most acute commentary on the outcome of the recent G7 summit in Cornwall. On the vexatious topic of the free crossing of chilled goods across the Irish border, the Taoiseach pointed out profoundly that “it is not about sausages per se”. He is right: diplomacy is always about more than sausages. That said, rather like the sausage, it is usually best not to enquire what went into the making of the diplomacy.

The G7 summit was about many things, not least the return of the United States of America to the conversation of reasonable nations. A sun-drenched Carbis Bay was a beautiful backdrop to an event that was, in the end, hijacked by the return of Brexit complications. Under the protocol agreed as part of the Brexit deal, European Union food safety rules do not permit chilled meat products to enter the single market from non-member nations. The six-month grace period, in which all parties were supposed to accustom themselves to the new rules, ends on 1 July. Boris Johnson has said he intends to extend it unilaterally. The Europeans say they will see him in court and will threaten a trade war for good measure.

The problem arises because Northern Ireland is both within and without the European single market. The protocol is a design for a square circle whose express aim was to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, while, at the same time, to respect the integrity of the European single market by policing a hard border between those who are in (the Republic of Ireland) and those who are out (Northern Ireland). It means, in effect, that Northern Ireland is simultaneously part of two territories: the single market for goods in the EU, but also the union of Great Britain, which has left the EU. It’s about a lot more than sausages.

[See also: Why the row over the Irish Sea border is only going to get worse]

There have already been some disruptions to supplies across the border, and the situation is due to get worse. The protocol has no supporters. The British Prime Minister intends to ignore it. In March, Britain decided to extend the grace period unilaterally to October, at which point the EU called in the lawyers. President Macron is understandably irritated that the British are not prepared to comply with an agreement they insisted on. The US president expressed his concern that the protocol threatens peace on the island of Ireland and, indeed, border checks were temporarily suspended in February when staff inspecting goods received threats. The Irish unionists also fear a descent into violence and don’t much appreciate that they are still, at least in part, in a European Union they wanted to leave.

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It’s an awful mess – which it is bound to be as the very question is unanswerable. There is no answer that can combine the geographical peculiarity of Great Britain with the boundaries of the European single market. Further negotiations, which broke out into a rather bitter dispute during the G7 in Carbis Bay, will no more yield a new answer than an investigation of the spectrum will discover a new colour. There is no answer to be found. The border question is unsolvable.

That is why the greatest wisdom on the issue comes from RJ Yeatman and WC Sellar. In 1066 and All That they write that Gladstone “spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question”. The Sellar and Yeatman observation about the grander Irish Question now applies to the protocol. The only viable approach to an unanswerable question is to stop asking it.

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[See also: Will Boris Johnson face the same fate as Arlene Foster?]

It is not a terrible abnegation of a sovereign agreement to think of the protocol as an opening gambit rather than holy writ. As the 19th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim once wrote, there is a great deal more in a contract than is contained in the contract. There is the spirit in which the deal was struck; there are the expressed aims and objectives, for which the contract itself may be an imperfect source; and there are the various interpretations of the contract that occur in its enacting. A contract is written but once. It is enacted every day in thousands, rising to millions, of smaller trade transactions.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement itself was an exercise in carefully written compromise. The draft is ambiguous, deliberately vague, deftly permitting signatories of all sides to feel comfortable with the slightly different interpretations. As the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole has said, the 1998 agreement “replaces hard certainties about identity and constitutional status with an open, contingent and deliberately slippery compromise”.

Of course, it is understandable that the EU should want its agreement respected. Britain is an irritating and arrogant neighbour with a prime minister who rather obviously wants to keep Brexit disputes alive for his own political purpose. Of course, it is reasonable of the EU to wish to maintain the integrity of its single market.

Yet the Irish border question is unanswerable if all parties to the conversation continue to demand a clean solution. The only viable approach to the vexatious problem of the Northern Ireland protocol lies in a liberal interpretation of its provisions, which is a sophisticated way of turning a bit of a blind eye.

[See also: Why does Boris Johnson keep making impossible promises on Northern Ireland?]

The spirit of the protocol has to be more like driving at 72 miles per hour on the M6 than like murder. They are both, strictly speaking, against the law, but both the policing and the sentencing are proportionate to the offence. It’s strange and it’s a mess, but the only answer to the question of the Irish protocol is to pretend more convincingly.

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web