The EU and UK have behaved like an “absentee landlord” in relation to Northern Ireland, an expert on Brexit in the region has said, as a new report by the Institute for Government has warned of more conflict across all issues “if the UK fails to manage the relationship” with Brussels.
Under the Brexit trade deal more than 20 committees and bodies are supposed to be set up to cement a working post-Brexit relationship on everything from fishing to energy supplies and aviation deals.
A further dozen or so were due to be created following the signing of the Northern Ireland protocol a year ago, and it is the failure to set up these management structures that is being seen as the cause of rising tensions in the region that led to the withdrawal of Brexit staff at ports last week.
“The protocol is not an easy thing to start up with a click of the fingers. But there has been this sense of an absentee landlord with all these rules coming into play and with no means of direct engagement to help manage the consequences of it,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast and a former adviser to the government’s now defunct Brexit department.
“The main concern of the European commission has been to demonstrate and prove to other member states that the single market is being protected,” she said, adding that such a one-dimensional approach had been a misfit for Northern Ireland, a region still going through a post-conflict peace process that the EU itself had put to the fore of negotiations.
The report by the Institute for Government on managing the UK’s relationship with the EU makes a similar point on the wider Brexit relationship and says the structures for management need to be put in place urgently.
Bronwen Maddox, the thinktank’s director, described it in a podcast on Saturday as like “the hidden wiring was missing”.
The institute says the committees will serve as platforms for expert and on-the-ground reporting which will act, in Northern Ireland’s case, as an early warning system to head off problems before they arise.
Its report says “the government appears inclined at every turn to downplay the significance of the UK’s relationship with the EU – and to have a preference for dealing bilaterally with individual member states rather than with the EU institutions.
“It may also fear that creating an overelaborate bureaucracy to manage the EU relationship would produce a mindset where the EU looms larger in internal thinking than it needs to.
“The government wanted a Canada-style agreement with the EU but … Brussels will never regard the UK as simply Toronto on Thames – and if the UK fails to manage the relationship well it may find it ends up with more conflicts with the EU than if it had spent more time thinking in advance about the issue.”
Under the Northern Ireland protocol a working consultative group was supposed to have been set up to feed into the UK-EU joint committee overseeing the implementation of Brexit.
But although the protocol was signed off more than a year ago it was never set up, leading to the rigorous application of it that has led to restrictions on food, pets and plants, all of which has been seized upon by loyalist communities and others as evidence of separation from Great Britain.
But Hayward says there are solutions for Michael Gove and the European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, who will meet next week, with part of the protocol explicitly allowing for an easing of controls at ports.
Article 6.2 of the protocol states the committee shall regard Northern Ireland’s “integral place in the United Kingdom’s internal market” and make “best endeavours to facilitate trade between Northern Ireland and the other parts of the UK”.
It adds that the ease of trade between Northern Ireland and the UK shall be kept under constant review and the committee can at any time make “appropriate recommendations with a view to avoiding controls at the ports and the airports of Northern Ireland to the extent possible”.
Hayward said: “The hope would be that those EU observers could recognise the nature of the situation and would be able to see where there could be flexibility and pragmatism.”
• The headline and text of this article were amended on 7 February 2021 to better reflect Prof Hayward’s comments.