The purpose of the Northern Ireland protocol was meant to be to square the circles of simultaneously protecting the single market and stability in Northern Ireland. But, as I write in the magazine this week, there are signs it is beginning to undermine stability there. The fundamental problem is that Unionists are increasingly against it. The First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeted this morning that Northern Ireland must be ‘freed from the protocol’.
Now, the EU can say that the checks the Unionists are objecting to are in the protocol that the UK government signed, and they would be right. But this would be to forget what the point of the protocol was in the first place.
Unionist discontent matters because the Northern Ireland Assembly’s consent is required for these arrangements every few years. The first protocol vote will come in 2024, and there is a growing risk that the next Northern Ireland Assembly elections, expected in May next year, will turn into a proxy referendum on the protocol. This would be deeply destabilising, even if, as polls currently suggest, Unionists fall well short of garnering an anti-protocol majority.
The worst of it is that the grace periods for implementing various parts of the protocol start to tail off at the end of next month. This is why the UK government wants to extend the grace period beyond the next Stormont elections. But the EU is insistent that these ‘grace periods’ can only run for months not years.
Another risk is that the DUP will pull out of the devolved institutions in protest at the protocol. If the DUP pull out of the devolved institutions, thereby collapsing them, we could be in a nightmare situation where direct rule from London had to be imposed to fully implement the protocol.
Whether the EU and the UK can make the Northern Ireland protocol work is a test of whether the two sides can find pragmatic ways to work together. If they cannot solve an issue that is meant to be all about preserving a peace process, it will bode ill for the whole future relationship.