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3 February 2021updated 04 Feb 2021 7:49am

What is the solution to problems with the Northern Ireland protocol?

There is no prospect of a return to the backstop now – and it would, in any case, be humiliating for Boris Johnson to sign up to Theresa May's deal. So what's left? 

By Stephen Bush

The Democratic Unionist Party has launched a five-point plan to campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol and to persuade the British government to trigger Article 16 in order to end the disruption of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

The difficult truth for the British government and the DUP is that the current scenario is not “extraordinary”: it is the protocol working as intended. It is creating a hard border in the Irish Sea in order to facilitate greater divergence between Great Britain and the European Union.

But, as Ailbhe described well yesterday, that has existential implications for the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Equally importantly, the difficult truth is that while the risks of violence created by a sea border are considerably smaller than those created by reimposition of a hard border, you don’t need to be particularly well-organised or effective to make the implementation of the former impracticable. 

[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]

What solution is there? The reality is, if you want to maintain the joint strategic imperatives of every British and Irish government since 1985 on the land border, and you don’t want new east-west barriers within the United Kingdom, then you have to remain in the regulatory orbit of the European Union, particularly on agri-food and phytosanitary standards. 

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The diplomatic achievement of Theresa May’s backstop from a British perspective is that it took that policy imperative and used it to leverage a big hole in the single market for goods. But to be frank, there is no prospect of getting a deal that good for the UK now – and it would, in any case, be humiliating for Boris Johnson to sign up to Theresa May’s deal. So what’s left? 

The only available answer is for the United Kingdom to remain aligned on EU phytosanitary and agrifood standards – but without the concomitant extra access to the single market. Essentially, this is the same arrangement as Switzerland has for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks, but without the same deep standard of access to the rest of the single market. That’s the available solution to eliminate the problem of the protocol: and the consequence of the foolishness of the Conservative Party, the DUP, and the pro-Brexit elements of the Labour Party in rejecting May’s backstop. 

[see also: The EU doesn’t understand the Irish border any better than the Brexiteers do]