It is an accepted fact that politics is a battle for power. It is as repugnant as it is pervasive. It is about as far removed from how most people live as to suggest that people are mere pieces on the board of political chess. Regrettably, Boris Johnson and his friends have control of the board.
If you are playing a game of chess and you say to your opponent, who, by the way, doesn’t care what you think or feel, that you are not looking for victory, then, in all honesty, you may as well retire.
The comments last week by Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice President, that the EU was not looking for ‘political victory’ is steeped in the EU tradition of trying to find consensus and agreement, even in the most challenging of situations. The debacle of the NI Protocol, completely the doing of Boris Johnson and his architects, certainly qualifies as challenging.
The problem with seeking consensus is that the opponent, for that is the only way to describe the British Government in these ongoing discussions, may not be at all interested in any kind of consensus. It is impossible to avoid suspecting that while the EU is trying to reach an agreement on the Protocol, Britain is engaged in another, altogether different path.
A report by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in July 2021 illustrates how the British Government perceives the operation of the protocol. Outlining a lengthy exposition of the lengths the British Government has gone to toward finding a workable solution, the report is comparatively short on detail about what exactly the problems are, apart from, of course, the overzealous approach of the EU Commission in its operation of the protocol.
The report relies for its patchy evidential base on some studies, reports, and surveys. Perhaps, most notable among these is a survey report from Queen’s University, Belfast, ‘Testing the Temperature II’.
Drawing on the Queen’s study, Lewis makes this stand-out observation: “There is now a 50/50 split in opinion in Northern Ireland on the Protocol, which is not a sustainable basis on which to proceed. This has been against the backdrop of growing protests, including instances of disorder, in Northern Ireland and multiple changes in the leadership of Northern Ireland’s largest unionist political party.”
The failure of the Secretary of State to recognise the blatant hypocrisy of his assertion is breathtaking. The simple fact is that the people of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, but, because of Northern Ireland’s current constitutional position, they have been forced to leave.
Interestingly, he only mentions Northern Ireland’s largest unionist political party, there is no mention of other parties, whose views are mostly much more nuanced.
Paragraph 23 of the report reminds us that the Good Friday Agreement recognised an interlocking and interdependent set of institutions and interests that need to be balanced together. It is beyond difficult to see how the British Government’s approach to the Brexit campaign and subsequent negotiations keep faith with that principle, one that they are relentlessly battering everyone with now.
If Britain is engaged in some sort of game, to return to the chess metaphor, then one of its key pieces on the board is the DUP. Staunchly loyalist, the party, no longer the largest party in Northern Ireland, and no longer holding the largest share of the vote, is becoming increasingly trenchant in its utterances and threats. Their latest statements indicate that they will withdraw from the Assembly in Northern Ireland unless the NI Protocol is dropped.
Even if there was anyone who wanted to do this, it would be legally impossible, because the protocol is part of an internationally binding treaty. They know full well that this is not something that can or would happen. But faced with the prospect of serving in Government with a Sinn Fein First Minister, pulling down the Assembly might seem like a smart move to some.
This is all conjecture, of course. It is conjecture, because I, like everyone else, not privy to the workings of Johnson’s and Frost’s thinking, are left to guess.
Therein lies the democratic failing.
Whether they are mere incompetents, trying and failing to resolve problems and difficulties they are largely responsible for, or they are playing a clever and devious game to prolong this dispute with the EU in an attempt to undermine its solidarity is simply not clear. Either way, this protracted and ridiculous charade is going to impact people’s lives in Northern Ireland, but not as a result of the protocol.
They are bringing about a situation where the protocol, and by extension, the question of the Irish border become jointly the main focus of the next Assembly election. It is looking increasingly likely that both the DUP and Sinn Fein would be quite content to let this happen, though for quite different reasons.
Meanwhile, people on either side of the so-called political divide who are working every day to build bridges and to help make things better, get no say in the soap opera that is politics in London, Brussels, and Belfast.
Politicians are what they are. Their political manoeuvrings, hidden agendas and backroom deals are usually something I, like most people, can ignore. The reality is that what these people do affects the lives of real people.
For me, it is becoming increasingly repugnant that it is getting almost impossible to guess what they are doing and why they are doing it. Is it any wonder that trust in politics is as low as it is?