Unionists can be forgiven for being wary of the sudden outburst of “positive mood music” from the Government and its Irish counterpart during the Northern Ireland Protocol talks.
Over the past few years we have seen London talk about a big game over Ulster more than once, only to then back down more often than not. Solemn deadlines after which ministers would supposedly have no choice but to trigger Article 16 came and went.
Given that the latest talk of a breakthrough comes just after Liz Truss lit a bonfire in her political capital following the mini-budget, some Tory MPs suspect that what is actually about to happen, that’s what the government is going to give into. Yesterday’s story in the Sun suggesting that “Truss could give EU judges oversight in Northern Ireland forever to get Brussels” did nothing to allay those concerns.
Will it fly? Given the turbulent state of the parliamentary party and the fragility of the Commons majority, a group of determined MPs could cause a lot of problems for the government if they did not like the outcome of the negotiations and the role of the European Court justice is a major sticking point for the more constitution-aware Brexiteers. A senior ERG member told ConHome:
“Given the history of all of this, we will obviously be following the progress of these negotiations very closely. However, there is no point in trying to park the question of the authority of the ECJ in Northern Ireland, as it is at the very heart of the whole issue.
But will the ERG speak with one voice on this? It usually has in the past. However, only two days ago, Sir Bill Cash – leader of the group ‘star chamber’ of lawyers – writing a platform for the Sunday Telegraph in which he urged the Tories to unite behind the Prime Minister against the “anti-growth coalition”. Cash has yet to make a name for himself as a loyalist; Northern Ireland does not deserve a mention in his article.
Of course, the ERG is not the only skeptical player – even more important will be the Democratic Unionist Party, without whose cooperation Ulster’s devolved institutions cannot back down. At their conference last week, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson took a tough stance.
On this site, he previously highlighted the importance of the government’s NI protocol bill. It will be interesting to see how ministers react to his expected aggression in the House of Lords, especially if negotiations supposedly go well. There will be many calls for the passage of the bill to be suspended as a sign of good faith.
Even if passed, the bill does nothing in itself to remedy the maritime boundary – it simply grants ministers the power to act unilaterally to remedy it if they wish. The government would still need to have both a solid strategy and the will to choose this battle with Brussels. Current circumstances do not give us certainty that this is the case.
Either way, it seems clear that any decline in the role of the ECJ will further swell the ranks of opponents of the government on its own benches. Ministers inclined to cut and run in the hope of a quiet life should make sure, as LBJ said, that they know how to count.