THE very obvious choreography leading up to the mooted February Protocol deal between London and Brussels has escaped the attention of the main unionist parties, the most vocal of whose members have been busy repeating in their New Year messages their meaningless and increasingly desperate demands for the scrapping of the Irish Sea border.
Before the ink was dry on their 2023 thoughts, new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a key intervention which has been interpreted by unionism as a belated but welcome admission of failure. What the Taoiseach said was that mistakes were made on all sides during the Brexit negotiations – which is as suprising and tendentious as noting that Liz Truss’s tenure as Prime Minister had encountered a number of difficulties.
“One thing I have said in the past is that, when we designed the Protocol, when it was originally negotiated, perhaps it was a little bit too strict,” he told the media at a briefing in Dublin on Tuesday. And in the remark which some unionists have interpreted as a move in their direction, he added: “We’ve seen that the Protocol has worked without it being fully enforced. And that’s why I think there is room for flexibility and room for changes, and we’re open to that and up for that, and I know from speaking to [the European Commission President [Ursula] von der Leyen and Maroš Sefcovic, that’s their position too. So we are willing to show flexibility and to make compromises. We do want there to be an agreement.”
That can be interpreted as movement in the direction of unionists, but only in the direction of pragmatic unionists who know that the best that they can hope for a is a deal which makes checks entering into the North – the single market – are as light-touch as possible. Those unionist absolutists – the King Canutes who are commanding the tide of commerce and politics to stop by insisting on a total scrapping of the Protocol – need to understand very quickly that this is Dublin’s piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is going to be the resolution of the issue.
Ireland Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says Brexit is a reality which is not going to be reversed, adding mistakes were made on all sides during negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol https://t.co/chryefz9mt— Bloomberg UK (@BloombergUK) January 3, 2023
Mr Varadkar’s words have been interpreted by the right-wing British press in pretty much the same way as unionism has interpreted them: as a concession by Dublin and an admission of failure, or at least mistakes. That, of course, is a necessary development for all the parties who are trying to fashion this Protocol deal because it will go some way to assuaging the hardline ERG types in the Tory Party who are jumpy at the prospect of a Protocol accommodation and who could make things very tricky for Rishi Sunak’s government when the time comes to seal the deal.
As we cast off into the uncertain waters of the New Year, our hospitals are overwhelmed; workers are rebelling; the cost of living is spiralling. Yet Stormont remains powerless.
The public here has been punished long enough for a Protocol that has nothing to do with Stormont. Let common sense prevail.