by Frank Schnittger
Wed Jun 15th, 2022 at 07:23:17 PM EST
The UK government, including Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Attorney General Suella Braverman have justified the anti-Protocol Bill on the grounds that it is necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to pre-empt loyalist violence. It will do this, apparently, by coaxing the DUP into the assembly which was only elected weeks ago.
However, there is no suggestion it will persuade the DUP to actually allow the formation of an executive, which would entail it losing the First Minister post and another Ministry under the d'Hondt formula because of the seats it lost in the election. According to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, this is dependent on the legislation actually being passed, something which could take well over a year, assuming all intervening parliamentary hurdles can be cleared.
So, the Northern Ireland electorate is being held hostage over a matter which is actually contained in an EU UK Treaty and thus not normally within the purview of the devolved administration. Indeed, the Protocol's provision for regular votes in the Assembly on its continuance actually extends the powers of the Assembly to a foreign policy area over which it has previously had no powers.
Strangely, the anti-Protocol Bill seeks to end this power by removing it from the Assembly's remit and replacing it by a toothless power to approve (but not change) the government's own Bill. Could it be that the 56% of voters who voted against Brexit and for Protocol supporting parties giving it a resounding majority in the Assembly voted the wrong way as far as this government is concerned, and must therefore be quashed?
But the government's strategy to rewrite the Withdrawal Treaty using the N. Ireland peace process as an excuse is subject to another hostage to fortune. What if Sinn Fein decided not to allow the election of a speaker unless the DUP agreed to the formation of an executive?
Sinn Féin could plausibly argue that:
1. Not appointing an executive frustrates the democratic decision of the N. Ireland people
2. An Assembly without an Executive to propose and implement legislation and execute decisions is just a talking shop
3. The will of the pro-protocol majority in N. Ireland must be respected.
4. Sinn Fein does not wish to be complicit in or facilitate a deal to break the Withdrawal Treaty and international law.
5. The GFA requires the UK government to give equality of esteem to both traditions in N. Ireland and yet it has shamelessly conspired with the DUP in preventing the appointment of a Sinn Fein First Minister.
In support of that case, Sinn Fein could argue that the Belfast High Court found the DUP broke the law by refusing to operate the north south institutions of the GFA (strand 2) and that the Johnson Administration itself has effectively mothballed the East West institutions (strand 3 of the GFA) and trashed bi-lateral relations with Ireland.
Stripping the Johnson administration of the "we must protect the peace process" justification for the anti-Protocol Bill reduces it to just another Brexiteer attempt to re-write the Withdrawal Agreement despite it having been signed by Boris Johnson, ratified by Parliament, and endorsed by the British electorate as Boris Johnson's famous oven ready deal.
Why should Sinn Fein allow Boris Johnson to present their participation in the Assembly as a justification for the Anti-protocol Bill and a victory for the DUP?
To be sure, Sinn Fein would jump at the chance of participating in the Assembly if it meant the formation of an Executive and the election of Michelle O'Neill as the first non-unionist First Minister in the history of N. Ireland. But that is not what is on offer and operating the GFA in good faith, in all its dimensions, means operating not just an Assembly, but the Executive and Strands 2 and 3 of the Agreement as well.
Sinn Fein critics can rightly point to the fact that Sinn Fein, themselves, have crashed the executive in the past, and so their reasons for doing so now might be taken with a pinch of salt. However, one of the features in this conflict has been the brazen volte faces performed by all sides. Boris Johnson is busily dismantling his own “oven ready” deal. The DUP are posing as the defenders of the Good Friday Agreement, having opposed it for much of their political lives. Back in the 1970’s, Sinn Fein opposed Ireland’s application for EU membership. Their defence of an EU Treaty now might be treated as ironic by some.
However, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. ("Self-Reliance", Essays: First Series, 1841)
John Maynard Keynes is also reputed to have sad: “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?”
So perhaps we are just seeing key players adjust their positions in response to changed circumstances. But it is those changed circumstances that are the key. Sinn Fein are now the largest party in Ireland, seeking to become the government of Ireland. The DUP are adjusting to a life in opposition. But it is perhaps Boris’ Britain which is having to make the greatest adjustment of all: From “Britannia rules the waves” to “Britannia waives the rules” as it seeks to preserve internal stability and carve out a new role for itself not just outside the EU, but in opposition to it and a world order based on the adherence to Treaties.
The danger is that it will end up isolated: estranged from its former partners in the EU, from the USA, and from all those who rely on international law to protect their sovereignty. Almost, nobody owes Boris Johnson or his government anything, least of all Ireland, which is trying to preserve as much as possible of the “ever closer union” it had on the island when both the UK and Ireland were members of the EU. Brexit was as much a sundering of Ireland from N. Ireland as it was a sundering of the UK from the EU. It will be a long time before relationships between Britain and Ireland are on an even keel again.
In the meantime, Sinn Fein must decide: - does it give some measure of legitimacy to Johnson’s claim that by tabling the anti-Protocol Bill in the House of commons he is acting to preserve the Good Friday Agreement – by electing a speaker and allowing the Assembly to sit, even if doing so will be presented as a win by the DUP to be taken into another election, probably in November? What’s in it for Sinn Fein, if they are denied their entitlement to nominate a First Minster?
It really does take two to tango, and unilateralism can only take you so far – as Boris may be about to find out. The next EU Council summit is on 23-24th. June, and their response to Anti-Protocol Bill should be interesting, even if, as I expect, it turns out to be low key. The EU is playing a long game.