We in Northern Ireland are sick of being pawns in the Brexit game

Shoppers on Belfast High Street. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA
Shoppers on Belfast High Street. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Being from Northern Ireland is exhausting. Being from Northern Ireland and experiencing Brexit is maddening. Two years ago Boris Johnson hailed the withdrawal agreement, which established the Northern Ireland protocol, as an “oven-ready” deal. The EU patted itself on the back. We knew better. We had an inkling of what was to come.

Here we are, almost a year since the protocol was actually implemented, and we’re still talking about it. After declaring that there was no Irish Sea border, after ignoring the fact that businesses in Northern Ireland were sounding the alarm about its implications, the EU and the UK government are still trying to fix their mess.

In recent days, the EU has put forward proposals to address the issues under the protocol. It proposes to resolve concerns about medicines, cut paperwork in half and reduce sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks. David Frost, the Brexit minister, has called for an intensive talks process and an entirely new protocol. The British government wants the European court of justice’s role removed. The spectre of article 16, allowing either side to suspend the protocol, has been raised again.

These are the opening pitches to another round of negotiations. We are to be entertained with another round of political theatre. Pray we don’t have a last-minute Christmas finale again.

I have protocol fatigue. I suspect most of Northern Ireland does as well. For all the political bluster and grandstanding, people want the protocol to be reformed and the matter resolved for good. They are fed up with the prospect of political instability and another protracted crisis.

Northern Ireland has a far more nuanced view of the protocol than some would have you believe. In a recent poll for the Belfast Telegraph, 48% said they opposed the protocol, and 43% were in favour. Most people were concerned about checks between Britain and the Northern Ireland. Few wanted checks to happen at the Irish border. However, two-thirds thought Northern Ireland needed specific arrangements in respect of Brexit. A majority believed the protocol provided opportunities.

In other words: we’re not happy about this and we want changes, but we’ll take it.

The government acts like people in Northern Ireland want this matter drawn out forever. They don’t. People will be watching the negotiations very closely over the next few weeks. They’ll be hoping for a resolution, not another round of jingoistic chest-beating.

As with everything in Northern Ireland, it’s complicated. Most people do not want a border down the Irish Sea or a border between north and south. To protect their own constitutional preference, some will accept one to prevent the other. That, ultimately, is where the conflict lies.

Unionists believe the protocol affects Northern Ireland’s place in the union. The DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, says the EU’s proposals “fall short of what is required”. The other unionist parties aren’t impressed either. No amount of procedural reform will be enough for some because they don’t address constitutional concerns. What is the alternative?

Nationalists and Republicans will support the protocol if the alternative leads to a hard border between north and south. The others, neither orange nor green, are broadly pro-remain and will support closer links with the EU. But it’s quite clear that the protocol isn’t acceptable in its current form. So what now?

As the polls show, the public is prepared to meet in the middle. We’ve always been pragmatic. The people of Northern Ireland are, as always, ahead of their politicians.

Dominic Cummings claimed the government signed the withdrawal agreement with the intention of reneging on the protocol. Ian Paisley Junior said Johnson told him a similar story. It was all some game of clever 3D chess, you see – brought to you by the people who were also able to cause a national run on petrol forecourts. Are we really supposed to believe that this was ploy all along?

True or not, the comments confirm what many already know: this government can’t be trusted. It cares only for itself and nobody else. In that Belfast Telegraph poll, only 5% of people said they had faith in the government. For different reasons, trust in the EU commission isn’t high either. The EU and the British government need to get this right. The government needs to engage in good faith. With both sides prepared to go back to the negotiating table, there’s an opportunity to fix the damage inflicted by the agreement in 2019.

Nobody can work miracles. No solution will keep everyone happy. Political actors need to be realistic. Unionists should not make the same mistake twice, turn down a good deal and cut their noses off to spite their face. Any solution needs to balance competing interests and respect constitutional sensitivities.

Brexit carves a path through complicated history. We’ll be standing in its shadow for a long time. The protocol is Northern Ireland’s Brexit reality. We deserve better than what’s currently on the table. We deserve better than years and years of endless bluster and chaos.

Sarah Creighton is a lawyer, writer and political commentator from Northern Ireland.

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