There’s been a lot of speculation about the impact of the Biden presidency on Brexit and for the island of Ireland. But the key issue for Northern Ireland remains whether there’s a deal on the future relationship between the UK and the EU in the coming days.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as British Ambassador in Dublin, head of the Northern Ireland Office, and the last British Commissioner in Brussels. A unique set of roles.
I profoundly believe that we need to find a deal on the future relationship for the good of Northern Ireland, and the UK’s relations with our most intertwined neighbour, Ireland. The Withdrawal Agreement on its own will struggle to do the job. The Internal Market Bill and the promised Finance Bill on their own certainly won’t.
I won’t rehearse here all the twists and turns that brought us to where we are today in the negotiations on Northern Ireland. There’s a book in there if someone’s brave enough.
But seen from inside the Commission, where I sat in the College of Commissioners for the first three years of this saga, there were in particular three problems that bedevilled the discussions.
First, the Commission was torn. It was negotiating on behalf of the EU and the member states with the UK; that’s its job. Which meant, in this context, in particular, negotiating on behalf of Ireland, as the most concerned member state.
At the same time, the Commission saw, indeed sees, itself as protecting the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, as the cornerstone of the peace process in Northern Ireland. It sought to be both player and referee. I don’t think it ever fully internalised that tension.
Second, the Commission, as the guardian of the EU Treaties and legal order, thinks naturally in terms of EU law. So when the Commission thought about how to avoid barriers between Ireland and Northern Ireland, it didn’t really see any alternative to EU rules continuing to apply to both.
This has, of course, caused a good deal of tension. It isn’t always an easy fit with the flexibility and ‘jointness’ of the Good Friday Agreement and the various institutions and practices that flow from it.
Third, for a long period as the EU and UK grappled with these problems, there was no shared Northern Irish voice. In the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, the Commission reached out to the various NI parties.
But that’s not the same as hearing from a voice representative of NI as a whole, and it’s fair to say the Commission’s relations with the Unionist parties were, at times, bumpy.
The Withdrawal Agreement sought to deal with some of the tensions. Notably providing for the Stormont lock on the arrangements continuing in the future. But it clearly hasn’t resolved them all.
The Joint Committee structure set up to manage the agreement stands whether there’s a deal on the future UK-EU relationship or not. But in the absence of a deal, it will struggle to resolve the remaining tensions around the future governance of Northern Ireland.
The UK Government’s attempt to take out ‘insurance’ against what it sees as a potential risk of over restrictive or one sided interpretation of parts of the Withdrawal Agreement is widely seen to have backfired.
But in the absence of a deal, there will inevitably be pressure to double down on the Internal Market Bill and planned Finance Bill. Further undermining the trust and cooperation needed to make the Joint Committee structure work.
It doesn’t need to be like this. A deal on the future relationship would significantly strengthen the Joint Committee structure and its work. It would reinforce the political and practical cooperation needed to manage any outstanding difficulties.
The Commission would represent the interests of the EU, but within a clearly established shared legal framework.
A deal would make it much easier to manage sensitive issues, like exit summary declarations. The Commission has repeatedly said that any checks should be ‘dedramatised’: where better to start than these formalities for goods going from NI into the rest of the U.K.
There would be a basis for addressing concerns around any eventual subsidies and state aid. And the question of defining ‘at risk’ goods would be both less salient if tariffs are no longer on the table, and something to be managed together, rather than a flashpoint with the UK and EU both claiming they can decide.
There would also be a framework for Northern Ireland’s voice to be heard, and given the weight it deserves.
When the NI Executive speaks about issues that directly affect the people of Northern Ireland we should all listen. Starting with the recent letter from the First and Deputy First Ministers setting out concerns on supplies to NI supermarkets. They are best placed to assess the realities on the ground.
And it’s the role of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, and all the friends and supporters of the peace process to find ways to respond to these urgent concerns.
All those who support Northern Ireland should work hard to get a deal on the future relationship over the line in the coming days.
By Sir Julian King GCMG, KCVO, Oxford Internet Institute and RUSI fellow and ex-European Commissioner for the Security Union.