The twenty fifth anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement will be celebrated on 10th April, if celebration is possible or even appropriate. After years of dispute caused by Brexit, there seems to be signs of goodwill breaking out on both sides. The European Commission Vice-President, Maroš Šefčovič, has let it be known in Brussels that he is fed up with the constant bickering and discord and wants a solution and he wants it by 10th April. Šefčovič has met with the UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly twice in the past month, most recently in London at a meeting also attended by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary. As a former MEP, Heaton-Harris knows Šefčovič well and a breakthrough now seems on the cards. He wants the broad outline of a deal to be in place by 19th January, the date he must either call fresh elections or extend the deadline. Last Thursday, the UK Labour leader, Keir Starmer, met the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his foreign minister Micheál Martin to discuss the issue. Micheál Martin then met Heaton-Harris. Clearly things are moving fast.

Because a hard border between the Province and the Republic of Ireland was completely ruled out under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit triggered the prospect of a virtual hard border in the Irish Sea, where goods entering the North could be checked before potentially travelling on into the EU. However, the creation of a border in the Irish Sea angered the Unionists who saw it as weakening Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. It also infuriated the arch Tory Brexiteers who saw the bureaucratic customs forms and checks as having a negative impact on trade. There was also on-going resentment from the hardliners that disputes on the protocol could be referred to the European court of justice. 

A UK idea to create a ‘green channel’ at ports like Cairnryan in Scotland, where goods destined to remain in Northern Ireland could be waved through without any customs checks, while goods heading to the Republic of Ireland would have to pass through a rigorous ‘red channel’, has been on the table for months. But the EU were wary that items passing through the ‘green channel’ could end up in Northern Ireland factories that were manufacturing goods for sale in the EU. There is also fear that smugglers could easily abuse the system. Now it seems that a tentative agreement has been reached allowing the EU access to a new British database on our IT systems that would provide almost real-time information on all products crossing the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland. Even the Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin, has welcomed the proposal and has travelled to Brussels for further talks with Šefčovič. Civil servants in both the EU and UK have, however, cautioned against over-optimism, stating that there are still many serious difficulties to resolve, including on plant, animal and food customs checks and the role of the European court of justice.

Playing a key role in the negotiations is the recently created Parliamentary Partnership Assembly (PPA), formed under the terms of the EU-UK trade agreement in 2021. The PPA is comprised of 21 MPs and 14 Peers, representing the UK, and a similar number of MEPs representing the EU. It is co-chaired by Sir Oliver Heald MP and Nathalie Loiseau MEP from France. The PPA’s remit covers everything from EU-UK trade and cooperation agreements to the UK Internal Market Act and, notably, the Northern Ireland Protocol. Indeed, in its two meetings so far, the N.I. Protocol has dominated the agenda, although a senior official said that one of the meetings was toe-curlingly embarrassing when the British Chair asked everyone to sing Happy Birthday to former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom. Few of the MEPs had a clue who Leadsom was, and few could sing Happy Birthday in English!

With Northern Ireland still without a sitting assembly since its elections last May and with a possible visit from President Joe Biden likely in the near future, some urgency has entered into the discussions. But Rishi Sunak has to tread warily to avoid igniting dissent from hardline Tories and the DUP. The Unionists have boycotted the setting up of a new power-sharing assembly because of problems with the Protocol. Bizarrely, the UK’s devolved administrations were not represented and have only recently been given observer status in the new Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which the UK agreed to reluctantly. But so far, no-one from Northern Ireland’s DUP has attended, sowing confusion over their position on the breakthrough talks. The former Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, did criticise Šefčovič at the first PPA meeting, however, claiming that his opening remarks were addressed solely to the British Foreign Secretary, reducing the role of committee members to mere “intermediaries”.

The Unionists lost their majority to Sinn Féin in Stormont at last May’s elections and the talk in Brussels is that a united Ireland is now almost inevitable. Commission officials and MEPs regard the Unionist posturing on Brexit and the N.I. Protocol as self-defeating and likely to accelerate support for re-unification. When Boris Johnson was prime minister, his threats to violate the international treaty signed after Brexit to resolve the N.I. Protocol stalemate, hardened Brussels opinion that he and his government were duplicitous and untrustworthy. There is now a widespread feeling that the people of Northern Ireland are hostages of an internal Tory Party struggle and have lost democratic control of their own destiny. Charles de Gaulle famously said: “Pour l’Angleterre, quand elle est la plus forte, il n'y a pas d'alliance qui tienne, ni de traité qui vaille, ni de vérité qui compte (for England, when she is the stronger, there is no alliance which holds, no treaty which is respected, no truth which matters). Boris Johnson almost fulfilled that projection. That is why Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly and Chris Heaton-Harris are pulling out all the stops to cement a deal with Brussels over Northern Ireland.