In next week’s Queen’s Speech, a remarkably controversial bill will be announced in the most anodyne language. The government will legislate to protect the Belfast Good Friday agreement in its entirety. These words will be a coded threat to the European Union that the UK is prepared to unilaterally tear up parts of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland. The EU has previously said that if this happens, the whole deal could fall. To which the Prime Minister may well respond: so be it.
Northern Ireland was the great compromise of Brexit. Boris Johnson got his deal against all expectations because he agreed to what is, in effect, a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. In theory, the east-west checks will ensure frictionless trade on the island of Ireland by eliminating the risk of non-compliant British produce entering the European Union via the open border between the North and the Republic. In practice, many in London (and Belfast) view these checks as disproportionate.
The protocol got off to a bad start. Many companies decided just not to serve the Northern Ireland market. The DUP, which rejected Theresa May’s deal and supported Boris Johnson (before he agreed the protocol) have paid a political price. They’ve been outflanked by the Traditional Unionist Voice which claims there’s a plan for an all-Ireland economy as a precursor to unification. This split in the Unionist vote is why Sinn Fein have gone into this week’s elections with a consistent opinion poll lead. London is right to be worried that the political situation in Northern Ireland is deteriorating.
The Democratic Unionist Party has now had three leaders in two years as it tries to come to terms with the situation. In February, it quit the power-sharing executive in protest at the protocol. The DUP has been clear to Whitehall that, ‘With the protocol as it is, Jeffrey [Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP] won’t nominate if it’s first or deputy.’