Colum Eastwood MP, commenting on the ill-judged decision by the European Commission to trigger Article 16, aptly described it as “disproportionate” and “a grave error of judgment”.
Former Secretary of State Julian Smith MP bluntly declared that it was “a cock- up”. Both politicians realised the dangers inherent in this woeful blunder.
The responsibility for this huge political shambles lies with Ursula von der Leyen and the European Commission, whose own collective incompetence in not properly managing the supply and distribution of the Astra Zeneca, anti-Covid vaccine, sparked this highly damaging political U-turn.
President Von der Leyen’s own political competence and insight on the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol must be seriously questioned. Her mismanagement of the whole Covid vaccine contracts programme calls into question her political capacity to continue as President of the European Commission, such is the magnitude of her mistakes.
Only but for the strong and immediate intervention of the Irish government, in particular the Taoiseach, Micheal Martin and Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, together with former EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, this disastrous initiative by Brussels would have gone ahead.
If it had gone ahead and Article 16 fully enacted, it would have seriously undermined the raison d’etre of the NI Protocol, that is the safeguarding and guaranteeing of an open land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
This political error has unhappily played into the hands of the Brexiteers in Britain and on this side of the Irish Sea, all shades of unionism, who have been furious at the way the whole Irish Sea border trade has been in their eyes, mismanaged.
The Irish Sea border has become a totemic issue for unionists. It has taken on an importance as great as the Anglo-Irish Agreement, or Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution.
Last night we saw the indignant reaction of Arlene Foster and the DUP, who have said that they want to send a “strong signal “ to the Irish government over the Protocol by stopping north-south activities.
In practical terms this will mean a DUP boycott of the North-South Ministerial Council. This, and much of the rest of their five-point plan, chimes with what the TUV leader, Jim Allister MLA, has been persistently saying for past few weeks.
He has been most critical of the DUP in the Assembly automatically supporting subordinate legislation, that supports the Protocol’s implementation.
Arlene Foster, whose leadership is clearly under severe pressure given the sharp drop in support for her party, as seen in the recent LucidTalk poll, is set to be more demanding of the British Government, who now will be more inclined to accommodate her wishes. Her statement that the EU move was “an incredible act of hostility”, was typically over-the-top.
Nonetheless, she has correctly identified the political significance of the EU’s blunder and the dangers for the DUP.
The angry reaction of her MPs at Westminster was in sharp contrast to her hitherto more pragmatic stance. Now however, Von der Leyen has unintentionally revitalised unionist opposition.
They see Europe’s blunder as another chance to derail the whole scheme.
The Commission’s big mistake has naturally emboldened the irate DUP leader to demand that Boris Johnson “use robust measures including Article 16, to advance the interests of NI and the rest of the UK.” That is short for getting rid of the Protocol altogether.
With Von der Leyen undermining the arguments put forward to establish the Protocol in the first place, unionists have a fresh opportunity to get London to ditch the Protocol.
Arlene Foster could well persuade Boris Johnson in relation to Article 16, and he is more than capable of tearing up essential parts of Treaties, as we have seen with his Internal Market Bill.
Despite DUP protestations, Simon Hoare, Chair of the NI Affairs Committee explained: “There is no appetite at Westminster to ditch the Protocol.”
But even if Boris Johnson invokes Article 16, he cannot remove the very institution of the Irish Sea border. He might be able to vary some aspects of the regulatory system, but the Irish Sea border will remain intact, that is until 2024, when the Assembly by way of a majority vote will be asked to renew the NI Protocol.
But given the current state of the parties in the Assembly, where unionists are in a numerical minority, it is improbable that such a vote would go against the renewal of the Protocol.
The likelihood is that there will be a further marginal decline in unionist representation at the next elections in June 2022, thereby guaranteeing an Assembly vote in favour of the Protocol.
Unionists will have to learn to live with the Irish Sea border.