Lord Frost responds to Margaret Ritchie in the House of Lords after she raises the issue of invoking Article 16 of the NI Protocol
Against threats of triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK government is taking the issue to the wire in its fraught negotiations with EU officials.
And in Northern Ireland, the tensions are mounting as DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson is threatening to bring down the NI Assembly unless a solution is found to the political and economic issues that have emerged around the NI Protocol.
Lady Ritchie speaking in the House of Lords yesterday thanked Lord Frost, the UK negotiator on Brexit, and said: “Last week the Lords Protocol committee took evidence from the University of Liverpool who produced results of their survey, and that survey was quite clear that issues to do with Covid and waiting lists are important to the people of Northern Ireland, but no-one is talking about the Protocol that I can hear of.
“And only this morning Stephen Kelly from Manufacturing NI said there were many benefits to be had from the Protocol. So I would ask the Minister – and it is very important that there is a negotiated solution to the Protocol – does the Minister agree with me that invoking Article 16 now would not solve any economic or political problems, and such a step would undermine political stability in Northern Ireland – something that was hard won on all sides?”
Lord Frost responded by saying: “I have looked very carefully at the polling survey produced by the University of Liverpool and other polling that I have seen… and it is inevitable that there will be day-to- day issues at the top of the poll such as Covid and waiting lists – and these are self evidently a major issue in NI politics.
“What I took from that survey was the high level of division on the question of the Protocol – there is very clear support for the Protocol in many polls or to change the Protocol… and what makes things difficult in Northern Ireland is this stark division.
“I don’t agree that triggering Article 16 would undermine stability.
“We would only do it to support stability in Northern Ireland and would proceed in that context.”
Article 16 and the Protocol.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed between the EU and the UK as part of the Brexit deal. It was intended to herald a period of peace and stability around Northern Ireland and protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
When the UK and Ireland were both members of the EU, keeping a land border was relatively simple in maintaining the Single European Market. But with Brexit, the EU are seeking to protect their standards and fear goods coming into the EU market through the back door of a porous border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Checks were agreed at the point goods would be arriving from the UK at Northern Ireland ports etc, effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea. The DUP have found this to be politically unacceptable citing UK constitutional issues.
Article 16 says: “if the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures. Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol.”
Amidst this tense political background, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick raised the issue yesterday in the House of Lords addressing the UK negotiator Lord Frost who responded tentatively to her question.
The Bottom Line.
Whether Lord Frost is using his option to invoke Article 16 as a negotiating ploy against further concessions sought by the EU remains to be seen. He has indicated that the UK government won’t trigger Article 16 until the Protocol negotiations have ended.
Since a Stormont election is due in May 2022, the UK government may hedge its losses and invoke Article 16 early in the New Year with just a short run up to the election thus minimising the impacts of a collapse of the NI Assembly.
We could be heading for another very turbulent period in our political history and economic prospects.
In a Guardian newspaper article today (p12), it was reported that President Biden has sided with the EU with the American president indicating Boris Johnston should not invoke Article 16. EU president Ursula von der Leyen has strongly suggested that the UK should adhere to the Protocol as agreed. The EU Commission is expected to present a range of ‘retaliatory options’ to MEPs in preparation for a UK triggering of Article 16 including the eventual suspension of the UK trade deal.