Sir Keir Starmer’s speech at Queen’s University Belfast just over a week ago, on Friday 13th January, was striking not because of what he said, but because of what he did not say. The Labour Leader’s characterisation of the presenting difficulty, the Protocol, was remarkably brief and one-dimensional.
The Leader of the Opposition welcomed the recent announcement about the UK agreeing to give the EU access to relevant trade databases and expressed hope that it would be possible to do a deal that will significantly reduce checks and make the Protocol work for Northern Ireland.
The Labour Leader’s approach was problematic, first, in reducing the difficulty presented by the Protocol to economics and then in reducing it further still to a small subset of economics, border checks. In truth the main economic difficulty arises not from checks but rather from the fact that you cannot interrupt the far greater diversity of goods moving within an economy through the imposition of a customs and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) border, without this generating costs that are of a wholly different magnitude to those attending such borders in international trade.
In this context the threat to economic life derives not from the fact that a small proportion of lorries will be checked but from the costs arising from the fact that all lorries must prepare customs and SPS paperwork, in case they are checked, and on a scale quite unlike anything attending international trade which renders much of the domestic trade in question increasingly unviable.
If we are to fully understand the challenge presented by the Protocol, however, then we must focus equally, (if not more in a speech that celebrated the central importance of the Good Friday Agreement), on politics. The reason why a border has been imposed across the UK, is because since 1 January 2021 different laws have applied to Northern Ireland than apply to the rest of the UK. It is the job of the border to protect the standards associated with the now (to that extent) separate jurisdiction for goods in Northern Ireland. Viewed from this perspective the presenting difficulty is that the different laws that apply to Northern Ireland, and necessitate the border down the Irish Sea, are not laws that Northern Ireland has made but rather laws that have been imposed on Northern Ireland by a polity of which she is not a part and in which she has no representation.
This arrangement is catastrophic for our politics generally and the Good Friday Agreement in particular. It means that the value of the vote and the value of citizenship which used to be one across the UK has now been uniquely debased in Northern Ireland.
Those of us who live in England, Wales and Scotland live with the civic dignity which comes from knowing that we have the right to stand for election to make all the laws we are subject to and or that we have the right to elect a fellow citizen to make those laws on our behalf.
Although UK citizens living in Northern Ireland knew this dignity until 1 January 2021, since that date the laws to which they are subject tell them that, uniquely within the British Isles, they are only worthy of the right to stand for election to make some of the laws to which they are subject and are only worthy of the right to elect people to make some of the laws to which they are subject. In 300 areas of law the people of Northern Ireland have lost their vote, lost their right to stand for election and have watched the debasement of their citizenship.
At this point someone might say, hang on. You are forgetting about Article 18 of the Protocol which gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a vote on the Protocol. The idea, however, that this somehow addresses the difficulty is farcical.
The vote does not give effect to democracy but rather to acquiescing with its demise. The vote cannot provide scrutiny of the legislation imposed during the previous 4 years because that legislation has already been imposed and cannot be changed.
Even if the law had not already been imposed, the idea that a parliamentarian can represent their constituents in relation to the development of four years’ worth of legislation through a single vote, meaning that they either want to vote for all the legislation, without amendment, or reject all the legislation, without amendment, is for the birds.
The only way in which the vote can be understood is as a request that MLAs agree that the rights of their constituents to be represented in the making of 300 areas of law to which they are subject should be suspended, and their citizenship to that extent surrendered, for the next four years.
This itself is an abuse because neither MPs nor MLAs have the power to surrender the rights of their constituents to be represented in making the laws to which they are subject.
That is something only the people themselves can surrender and no self-respecting person should be asked to even contemplate such civic humiliation.
This is all rather difficult for Sir Keir because of what he did say in his speech about the Good Friday Agreement and Labour’s role in its facilitation. The Good Friday Agreement was all about putting the ballot box back in the centre of Northern Ireland politics. It was about persuading people who had previously sought to pursue their national and political aspirations through terrorist acts to now focus their attentions exclusively on, in the words of the Agreement, ‘pursuing democratically national and political aspirations.’ In this context the debasement of the vote effected by the Northern Ireland Protocol is as extraordinary as it is grossly irresponsible.
Sir Keir is absolutely right to say that we should use the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement to concentrate minds to find a solution to the Protocol, but if he thinks this can be delivered by a deal on the number of checks, the first mind that needs to be concentrated is his own.
We need a solution to the Protocol that not only deals with all (rather than just some of) the economic problems but also restores the right of the UK citizens in Northern Ireland, along with UK citizens in England, Wales and Scotland, to stand for election to make all the laws to which they are subject and or to elect a fellow citizen to make all those laws on their behalf. Only with the restoration of these rights can Northern Ireland enjoy ‘ordinary politics’, the thing Sir Keir told us last Friday that Northern Ireland deserves.