The Irish protocol: let’s just trust the British, OK lads?

So should we be throwing our greasy caps at the moon in delight or howling in despair at the same moon, in response to the British paper yesterday on what’s become known as the Protocol (where do they get these clunky titles?) ? 

Maybe a bit of both. On the positive side, Michael Gove has said that Britain will see to it that the present checks (Yes, Virginia, there always has been an NI-UK border) “will be streamlined and simplified”. In realspeak, that means there will be additional checks built on those already there, but we’ll try not to make them too blindingly obvious in case the DUP should start banging its head off a. wall and screaming “Treachery!”

Why then was Simon Coveney so lukewarm in his response yesterday? Two reasons at least.

He knows that this is just the opening exchange and that there’ll be much wrangling and bargaining before the end of this year.   Secondly, there’s a bit in the British document which says that EU customs rules will apply to everything entering the north unless it’s concluded there’s no risk of these goods crossing into the south of Ireland.  In fact, the British have indicated that their system of checks would assume that stuff coming from Britain into the north won’t go any further. 

That is worrying. Who decides if a given consignment of goods is bound for the north full stop, or are goods ostensibly bound for the north but actually in transit to the south of Ireland and hence into the EU?  The British, with some oversight by the EU, will decide. But since the Brits and unionists are opposed to even an EU office in Belfast, it’s natural to find your lips in reflex movement and the words coming out of your god despite yourself: “Perfidious Albion”. 

Remember, it’s in Britain’s interest that the EU is weakened. After December of this year, it will be a rival with the UK for international trade. The more polluted and leaky the EU gets, the better pleased the British will be. 

As one politician said to me yesterday, under normal circumstances you could feel confident that the EU would  be alert to Britain’s weaselling and make it clear that it will, under all circumstances, maintain the integrity of the EU market. But with Covid-19 leaving everyone preoccupied, who knows what dirty work at the crossroads is afoot?  

Key to all this will be how closely the EU monitors British checks on goods entering the north. Personally, I’d suggest monitoring that would employ choke leads, microscopes and a megaphone for yelling “Attempted cheating!” every time Britain tries to pretend goods are bound for here when in fact it knows that the good are headed for the Achilles heel of the EU, the south of Ireland. 

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