One essential truth that hasn’t got through the boneheadedness of Boris Johnson’s Brexiteers: don’t mess with the Six Counties.
Brussels and UK at odds over proposed EU office in Belfast
Clashes expected over plan which Britain says would sow division in Northern Ireland
Brussels and UK officials will clash over the increasingly fraught question of whether the European Union can open an office in Belfast.
At the inaugural meeting on Thursday of a special committee of officials charged with enforcing a de facto Irish Sea border, the European commission is expected to press the case to open “a technical office” in Belfast, three days after the government rejected an EU “mini-embassy” in the Northern Irish capital
The EU is refusing to drop the issue, amid fears Boris Johnson’s government could renege on the Brexit withdrawal agreement that requires Northern Ireland to follow EU single market and customs rules.
Moreover, the first name on that by-line is Jennifer Rankin in Brussels. This is no Telegraph or Daily Mail hysteria: Rankin has a track-record of cool, clear reporting.
Most London ‘sources’ report on Brussels, out of London kitchens and offices, and amount to froth and fury (much of it invented over a bottle of good Bordeaux). The Guardian, bless its little liberal heart, does the business properly.
Compare the coverage in The Times: as far as I see, that one-time ‘newspaper of record’ had given us just two stories on the UK approach to #Brexit thesis week:
Ministers have stood down the government’s no-deal Brexit planning operation, Michael Gove said yesterday as he claimed that the chances of striking a deal were now at least 2-1.
Giving evidence to MPs, Mr Gove revealed that about 50 civil servants who had been working on Brexit negotiations had been re-deployed to deal with coronavirus and that there were no active preparations for leaving without a trade deal in December. […]
That one by-lined to Oliver Wright, Policy Editor — so a straightforward Little Shard desk job, as likely as not gleaned from watching the BBC Parliament feed from #Brexit Select Committee. And:
Northern Ireland ‘needs Brexit clarity’ (today)
Northern Ireland needs Brexit clarity from a UK government “consumed” by the coronavirus emergency, the Belfast civil servant in charge of its preparations said.
Two scenarios have been drawn up at Stormont depending on whether or not Britain secures a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU.
Andrew McCormick, the director-general of international relations, said that without a deal, the border protocol surrounding compliance with aspects of the Irish system is expected to apply.
“Time is tight but what is needed from London is clarity on these issues,” he said.
Michael McHugh, by-lined there, would seem to be standing closer to the horse’s mouth, and let’s note:
Mr McCormick told the Stormont committee of Assembly members yesterday that the UK government’s focus was on Covid-19, and not Brexit.
McCormick is director-general of international relations. While:
The chairman of the group charged with consulting Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on Brexit is Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office, who has also had to devote his time to the virus crisis.
Got that, chaps? The NI Executive is allowed ‘international relations’. Read the self-descriptor for this International Relations Team (and, yes, they do award themselves capitals):
Under devolution legislation, international relations and relations with the EU remain the responsibility for the UK Government. However, it is recognised that the devolved administrations will have an interest in international policy making in relation to devolved powers.
Under the Belfast Agreement the duties of the First Minister and deputy First Minister include co-ordinating the work of the Executive Committee and the response of the Northern Ireland administration to external relationships.
That decodes as: the EU must be kept at the end of a barge-pole. Everything has to go through London, where Chipmunk Gove is marking his own homework.
But here’s a funny-peculiar thing, also from The Guardian:
A narrow majority of Northern Irish MPs, it has emerged, back the EU plan for a Belfast office. Ten of 18 MPs elected to Westminster reject the government’s argument, including Sinn Fein, who do not take their seats. The Democratic Unionist party, who make up the remaining eight, support the government, whose position was outlined by the paymaster general, Penny Mordaunt, on Monday.
In a letter to senior EU officials including the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, Mordaunt said a special EU office would be “divisive in political and community terms” and was not required by the Irish protocol agreed last October.
Immediate question: why is Penny Mordaunt speaking for the DUP?
She is either too simple (read that as you wish) or too complicated for most thinking souls. She is currently ‘Paymaster General’, which is a parking place for either up-and-comers being kept on a string, or giz-a-job types who might otherwise go rogue. Beyond that, ‘Paymaster General’ is anything up to and including minister for paper-clips.
So the questions are:
- Is Ms Mordaunt going out on a limb? She has a track record: a previous outing (insisting that Remain meant Turkish entry to the EU) had to be slapped down by PM Cameron. Indeed, although tied to a hard-Brexit constituency (Portsmouth), one wonders just how deep Ms Mordaunt’s Brexiteering runs: she is none too far from opportunism at any time.
- Has she been put up to this, being ‘deniable’? There’s a further layer to that onion: Brandon Lewis was a familiar TV figure before the latest Johnson re-shuffle. I doubt many at Westminster, outside his close circle of friends, could instantly name him as SoS NI. Just another ‘safe pair of hands’?
Anyway, on current form it’s difficult to see any kind of realism in Tory thinking on relations with the EU. Added to which, there seems to be underlying Tory grievances aimed at all things Dublin, and at Leo Varadkar especially (particularly so after the three-way party split for the 33rd Dáil).
Spitting in the eye of the EU is standard operating practice for Boris Johnson’s Tories: it is an item on Michael Gove’s job description. Sharing cuddles with the DUP was the mode until the December General Election: now it’s more lack of social distancing. Poking sharp sticks at Tithe an Rialtais is a well-established Tory sport, but no longer so one-sided. Upsetting the whole apple-cart in the Black North is totally misguided.