Is Truss’ stance on Northern Ireland putting ‘Global Britain’ in jeopardy?

By Joshua Taggart

As the new Prime Minister left New York following her first international visit as the resident of No. 10, much attention was (rightly) paid to the UK-US approach to the war in Ukraine, the ongoing inflationary and supply-chain crises striking the global economy, and the prospects of a trade deal between the two Anglophonic allies. Less attention was paid to a crucial matter of difference between President Biden and Prime Minister Truss: the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Biden has been firm in his stance on Northern Ireland: he views the integrity of the Belfast Agreement and the peace process as a bipartisan issue of high symbolic and practical importance, and he disagrees strongly with the Truss administration in their unilateral approach to the Protocol. It is true that the Protocol Bill has ruffled feathers, even within the Conservative Party, but Truss is sticking to her guns: for her, a border separating Great Britain from Northern Ireland is unacceptable, and it is the EU that, through sheer hard-headedness, has forced her to take actionon her own terms. 

Which side is right? The problem is that both have a compelling argument: wherever the Irish border is drawn, whether on the island of Ireland (between North and South) or in the Irish Sea (between GB and NI), neither the Unionist nor the Republican populations will be satisfied. There is, of course, a strong need to preserve the fragile peace brought about by the Good Friday Agreement, and the legacy of David Trimble and John Hume must be acknowledged and respected. Only a Northern Ireland governed through consensus, bipartisanship, and compromise can possibly succeed.  

And yet, it is also clear that the Protocol does not function in its current form. Waiting lists are unsustainable, tariffs are unreasonable and tensions within hardliner communities in Ulster are flaring up. The DUP, unwilling to take defeat lying down, will continue to refuse to form an Executive with Sinn Féin so long as they believe they have the political and social capital to do so. It’s clear, however, they have lost the powerful position they held under Theresa May’s supply and confidence arrangement, and they’re unable to shake off their past support for the Protocol, which lingers like a shameful memory and compromises their current stance that the Protocol is an unacceptable threat to the existence of Northern Ireland.

Amid all of this are the facts on the ground in Northern Ireland: this is a country pushed into a Brexit it voted against and now held on a cliff edge by a Protocol that it largely supports keeping, and a Government which negotiated the agreement in the first place. For many Unionists and Republicans (and especially the business community), the question is not what should replace the Protocol, but how the Protocol should be built upon: queues shortened, paperwork simplified and capitalizing upon access to both EU and UK internal markets. Many in NI are more concerned with the heating bill than the border, and questions of constitutionality and Irish unification are too far in the distance to deal with right now.

This picture is further complicated by the realpolitik of the new Prime Minister, a libertarian Thatcherite with a desire and need to portray strength to her Party and loyalty to the Unionist community. Her budget was radical and uncompromising in its ideological vision of low taxes and high growth, and she will seek to recreate this same approach in her foreign policy. Truss’ Protocol Bill is a double whammy – an attempt to shore up support in the Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative Party by sticking it to the EU, while attempting to gather the Unionist community behind her as another band of support. 

Yet she is all too keenly aware that multilateral cooperation and action is needed, now more than ever, on a variety of complex and contentious topics, from the defence and security of the Eurozone to climate change to taxation and innovation. Despite leaving the EU in 2020, the United Kingdom is just as dependent on the EU (and vice versa) as it was in 2016, even if it is more independent – war in modern Europe has only emphasised that fact. Trade with other continents may be seriously compromised by the Protocol Bill, and prospective trading partners like the USA, India and Canada will be watching closely. In the end, Prime Minister Truss and her ideals may have to deal with her most brutal opponent yet: reality. The question is who will fold first: Truss the idealist, or Truss the pragmatist?

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