The March 3 announcement from UK Government that it intended to unilaterally break the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol comes as no surprise. It is emblematic of London’s approach by Boris Johnson since he first assumed office.
Mr Johnson’s approach to the challenges that Brexit posed for Northern Ireland have been an amalgam of bluster, bluff and a freewheeling approach to facts.
While serving as Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson dismissed the complexities posed by the Irish border, suggesting that finding a solution is “not beyond the wit of man”. Other than some kite flying about customs clearance zones and vacuous chatter about potential “technical fixes” he produced no solutions.
When Mr Johnson replaced Theresa May in July 2019 finding a way forward on the Irish border question became critical to avoiding a no-deal UK withdrawal from the EU.
A meeting on 10 October, 2019 between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar framed a way forward. Mr Johnson, in essence, accepted that instead of a revived hard land border customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland’s from the rest of the UK would be carried out at Northern Ireland’s ports. This paved the way for agreement, at the European Council on 17 October 2019 on the UK withdrawal process and on the Irish Protocol.
The arrangements, after some drama in the Commons, gave Mr Johnson a trump card going into the 2019 UK general election. They also caused serious problems for Unionists.
During the election campaign Johnson promised Unionists and Northern Ireland businesses leaders that "there will not be tariffs or checks on goods coming from GB to NI"; He advised any business required to complete customs forms to throw them in the bin.
In addition to being less than honest with Northern Ireland Unionists this bluster discouraged business from gearing up for Brexit: no business is going to invest time, effort and hard cash gearing up for problems that the Prime Minister says will not happen.
Since his 2019 election victory rather than support the Protocol and work through the difficulties it posed for Northern Ireland Unionists, Mr Johnson has systematically attempted to distance himself from the inevitable problems that have arisen.
As negotiations on the UK withdrawal arrangements were at a crucial point Downing Street made an extraordinary decision to incorporate provisions in UK law that would allo British Ministers to “unilaterally re-interpret” the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Following protests from the EU Commission and warnings from the US, Johnson dropped the offending provisions explaining that an 'agreement in principle' on the issues affecting Northern Ireland had been reached with the EU.
The UK withdrawal arrangements were signed off by Boris Johnson on Christmas Eve: He hailed the agreement as “the foundation for a really prosperous new relationship”.
In the middle of January, well before the Commission’s Article 16 gaffe, Mr Johnson, responding to a question from a DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, told the Commons he would have "no hesitation" in triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to resolve problems that were then disrupting imports from the UK into Northern Ireland.
The March 3 announcement that the UK intended to unilaterally extend the grace period for food imports into Northern Ireland is a direct follow on from that exchange. The announcement which came without notice infuriated Brussels and Dublin. The EU Commission called the proposed action a violation of the Irish Protocol and a breach of good faith. Simon Coveney, showing remarkable restraint, called London’s actions a breach of trust.
London’s reaction was characteristically dismissive. Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost portrayed the UK’s move as lawful and said Brussels should “shake off any remaining ill will” towards the UK for leaving the EU.
There is a weariness in other EU capitals to the never-ending Brexit bickering. In Northern Ireland itself, attitudes are as polarised as ever and community tensions have been fuelled by the UK government’s duplicitous approach None of this makes for optimism.
The announcement by the Commission on Monday that it is triggering infringement procedures against the UK should be sufficient to bring any sensible government back from the brink.
Pressure from friendly third party intervention might also help. The US could be that friendly third party.
When the news broke in September that the UK proposed giving its Ministers power to “unilaterally re-interpret” the Northern Ireland Protocol warnings came both sides of the US political divide.
Then Presidential candidate Joe Biden said that the Good Friday Agreement “cannot become a casualty of Brexit”, Nancy Pelosi warned that the UK was risking its US trade deal and President Trump’s Northern Ireland Envoy cautioned the UK against creating a “hard border by accident”.
Days after the US elections in his first phone call with Boris Johnson President-elect Biden put down a marker about keeping the Irish border open.
On March 4, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki when questioned about the UK’s March 3 rd decision reiterated President Biden’s “unequivocal support for the Good Friday Agreement.
On March 10, Simon Coveney arranged a virtual briefing with the influential Friends of Ireland caucus in the US Congress. EU Commission VP Šefčovič was invited to join the briefing. That was an inspired move.
Following the briefing, it was announced that a bipartisan motion supporting the Good Friday Agreement will be introduced in the US Senate next week.
The Irish Government’s response to Mr Johnson’s behaviour has been calm but firm. Given the significance that Mr Johnson attaches to a new UK-US trade deal bringing Washington into the picture might be what’s needed to persuade Mr Johnson that his confrontational approach is not the way forward.