Finding Solutions and Enacting Opportunities: The Protocol

“Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” – EM Foster

Yesterday, I took the unusual decision (for me) to sign an open letter calling for some proportion and sense to prevail within the negotiations between the EU and UK over how the Northern Irish Protocol will work post grace period.

It seems to me there’s been a failure of imagination around these issues, with Mr Johnson’s UK administration making a lot of noise but not exactly advancing its own ideas of what needs changing or indeed how.

Brexit for me (whatever I think of its wisdom now) is a reality, and the Northern Irish Protocol does contain a seminal departure opportunity for a post Belfast Agreement politics that has rarely raised itself above a sham culture war.

Much time was wasted on things like decommissioning, and a legacy process (that still reeks of poor faith) between 1998 and 2007, by which time the investment needed to reflate the economy and public services was about to dry up.

By granting Northern Ireland a special status the EU and the UK have given us an opportunity it cannot afford to spurn. But by forcing external border standards on a UK internal sea border they have risked political destabilisation.

In particular, I endorse this section of the letter:

Despite various views and interpretations regarding the Protocol there are many investors, business leaders, trade unions, community groups and NGOs across Northern Ireland, GB and Ireland who are keen to develop potential trade, social economy and business opportunities offered by the Protocol. Such opportunities will sustain peace underpinned by shared prosperity, sustainable economic growth and the ability to meet the global challenges of environmental stability and security.

Northern Ireland has swallowed a lot of guff to maintain what is by any objective standard an imperfect peace, among them the idea of two separate communities. Many unionists voted to remain, as some nationalists voted to leave.

It is true that strictures applied to the east west trade border do not hit nationalists with the same emotional effect as it does unionists, but they are just as uncomfortable for small business owners in whose supply chains are complex.

Of broader concern is how we address the big issue facing Northern Ireland, which is not just political instability (to some degree this is inevitable and may even facilitate positive change) but how to transition from long war to long peace.

Even short wars can have long term consequences, but for Northern Ireland to start growing itself a bigger future it needs to engage with almost anything that enlarges the shadow of the future. From our 2003 Long Peace report:

…transform the game by increasing the rewards for cooperation. You enlarge the shadow of the future by creating an expectation that the future will be better than the present. Success helps keep both friends and enemies close and encourages all participants to judge the system through actions rather than words. And the more people are winning, the easier it becomes to avoid envy.

Up until now both within the context of Irish and British policy in Northern Ireland (and to some extent this has guided EU Peace Funding programmes), we have been more interested in avoiding conflict than building a viable peace.

This has led us up some very dark alleys and ensured that funding has dripped into a very narrow patch, governed primarily by political activism and premised on just holding things together until they periodically fall apart again.

It was a disinvestment in finding larger solutions to the problem, and probably derives from the post 2001 decision by both governments to let the DUP and Sinn Féin have their day and let the moderates, who built the Agreement, wither.

Twenty years later, we see the poisoned fruits of that disengagement. This is why I believe both sides need to set themselves a higher standard for building the lasting peace in Northern Ireland that most want, than just avoiding war.

The protocol can be an engine to drive that transformation, but only if we all look for ways to positively engage without endangering the integrity of the single market (the advantages of which are already removed from Brexit Britain).

Perhaps Unionism should have a good talk with itself about how things came to this pass? And nationalism, if it’s still interested in showing what a united Ireland can bring, might ask why voters are jumping to the Greens and Alliance?

Whether maintaining the Union or unifying with the south, big stuffs needs broad consensus. That’s not achievable through a simple and dull restatement of possession (the DUP) or permanent disaffection with the way things are (SF).

Fixing the protocol won’t fix Northern Ireland, but it could be a shot at the sort of renewal that opens horizons for both nationalists and unionists. Nothing worth winning was ever gained just by making our own world a little colder.

The problem facing the EU and UK is how to reframe the Protocol from where it is now (Win/Lose) to a situation where it can pocket Northern Ireland that chance of renewal (Win/Win). Do they have the depth of politics to achieve it?

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