Richard North, 21/04/2021  

Given the squealing last January over the Commission's proposal to use Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, one might have expected a similar hue and cry when the odious Johnson pulled a similar stunt. But that would be in a sane world where the legacy media was staffed by grown-ups who could see beyond the trivia and focus on what's important.

As it is, Johnson made his suggestion during an interview on the BBC's Spotlight programme, broadcast at 9pm last night to commemorate the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland. But even the Corporation itself has buried its own report of the event in a survey on the survival of the province as part of the UK.

Of course, as one might expect, the BBC is far more interested in the conviction of Derek Chauvin over the death of George Floyd while the rest of the media remains obsessed with the fate of the so-called "super league". The burbling of an insane prime minister on such an important issue as the Protocol is so far down the batting order as to be virtually invisible.

As it is, I picked up the Johnson story earlier in the day, yesterday, from the Guardian - a report which was no longer on the website by the evening and doesn't appear to have made it to the print edition.

The headline the paper was then running declared that: "Johnson says UK trying to cut 'ludicrous' Northern Ireland checks", with the sub-heading telling us that the prime minister was "sandpapering" the protocol signed with EU, which he said "has been misinterpreted".

The text conveys vintage Johnson, the very same man who in December 2019 insisted that there would no checks for goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, without specifying that in his "oven-ready" deal, there would be checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Now, after extensive reports of the problems incurred, Johnson is dismissing the checks as "ludicrous", telling the BBC that he is trying to get rid of them by "sandpapering" the protocol he signed with the EU in January 2020. In his view, the protocol had been "misinterpreted" and the border checks were supposed to be "light touch".

In typical style, he burbled at the BBC: "What we are doing is what I think is removing the unnecessary protuberances and barriers that have grown up and we are getting the barnacles off the thing and sandpapering into shape".

Blathering on, he the claimed the way the protocol had been interpreted did not conform with the clauses in the deal, which specifically states it has to regard "the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom's internal market".

It was at that point that Johnson said that if he concluded the Irish Sea trade checks were not working in the interests of the UK, he would invoke Article 16, allowing him temporarily to suspend [parts of] the Protocol.

"If it looks as though the EU is going to be very dogmatic about it and we continue to [be in an] absurd situation so you can’t bring in rose bushes with British soil into Northern Ireland, you can't bring British sausages into Northern Ireland, then frankly I'm going to, we'll have to take further steps", Johnson said.

At the very least, this suggests that Johnson didn't have the first idea of what he was agreeing when he put his signature to the Withdrawal Agreement, of which the Northern Ireland Protocol is an integral part. But it also suggests that, despite the passage of time, the prime minister still has no clear idea of what the Protocol entails.

Nor, it would appear, does he have any real idea of the implications of invoking Article 16. Apart from the impact on the Commission and the EU Member States, this would put the TCA at risk as the European Parliament would be unlikely to ratify it one Johnson had invoked the "safeguards" in the Protocol.

As much to the point, if unilateral implementation, created "an imbalance between the rights and obligations" under the Protocol, the EU would be entitled to "take such proportionate rebalancing measures as are strictly necessary to remedy the imbalance".

Under the circumstances, one might see the EU insisting on checks carried out at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as the only viable option for preserving the integrity of the Single Market. The implications of that can only be imagined.

Some hint of where this might go is offered by the Belfast Telegraph which has the Alliance Party branding what it calls Johnson's pledge to end Irish Sea trade barriers as "disingenuous", warning that making "false promises" will only inflame the situation in Northern Ireland.

This comes from the party's deputy leader, Stephen Farry, who challenged the Prime Minister to be honest about the protocol, something which would be a quite remarkable event in its own right.

Farry says that: "These comments only serve to reinforce how disingenuous the Prime Minister has been towards Northern Ireland during the Brexit process. Making yet more false promises will only make an already tense situation even worse".

He adds: "Boris Johnson must be open and honest as to why the protocol exists and what the available realistic options are to address the challenges it presents. Short of the UK rejoining the customs union and single market, which could remove the protocol, the only plausible way forward is to soften its impact through the UK more closely aligning with the EU".

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken has described Johnson's comments as "wholly inaccurate", taking in comments by Irish premier, Micheal Martin, who told the Spotlight programme that it was "overly dramatic" for anyone to claim the protocol is ripping the UK apart.

Martin's view is that early signs have indicated that unionists were going to work with the Protocol "pragmatically", and politically critical voices were drowning out those of business people and farmers who could see potential advantages in the new trading arrangements.

Mr Aiken disagrees with both Johnson and Martin. The comments made by that pair, he says, "about the Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol are at best, disingenuous. Both are ignoring the very real concerns many across Northern Ireland feel about the protocol".

He reminded the programme that "We are over 100 days in", and it was "very clear" that the Protocol was not working. "Indeed", he says, "if the brakes had not been applied unilaterally by the UK government, the impacts on the Northern Ireland economy and society would be even worse".

Covering a span of Unionist opinion, we than have Jim Allister, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader. He says that: "The protocol was foisted upon Northern Ireland without unionist support and has failed politically and economically. The Prime Minister should be working intensively to develop a solution which can command support from the Unionist community".

He adds: "Having repeatedly assured us that no Conservative Prime Minister could countenance an Irish Sea border, and then denied its existence, I suppose these comments represent a degree of progress on Mr Johnson's part".

"However", he goes on to say, "it isn't a case of sandpaper being needed to address the issues with the protocol. As a starting point, he should trigger Article 16 … The protocol, which he agreed and imposed on the people of Northern Ireland, is the greatest threat to the Union in my lifetime".

Whether "greatest threat" is an exaggeration, only time will tell. But this is not something of any concern to the bulk of the British legacy media. While the fires burn in Belfast, issues of substance about Brexit, vital to the British people, are no longer important enough to cover.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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