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Brexit deal hits the buffers

A Tale of Two Halves

23 February 2023

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson after meeting with PM Rishi Sunak.

Last week the outlines of a settlement to the Northern Ireland Protocol were leaked, with the expectation that it would be ushered through in the near future.  The EU, urged on by the Irish state, had made significant concessions. A red lane would inspect goods moving through to the 26-county state. A green lane would allow goods to move freely to Northern Ireland, with electronic inspection to check for any suspicious patterns of movement.

This is a victory for the sheer bloody mindedness of the Brits. However, on the issue of legislative oversight a fudge is necessary. Given their record, there is simply no way in the world that the EU would accept Britain supervising the agreement. A local panel of judges would be established, but the final authority would rest with the European Court of Justice.

If Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expected praise for his efforts he was mistaken. A meeting of reassurance with the DUP ended with Jeffrey Donaldson proclaiming that more work needed to be done. In London there was open revolt on the Tory right, led by the European Research Group (ERG), with threats of resignation within the cabinet. Former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss demanded that unilateral legislation to tear up the agreement with Europe be pushed through the House of Lords.

At one level this appears to be a minor crisis. Sunak can pass a new agreement in a moment by calling on the Labour party to vote with him. The difficulty is that he is a weak leader in a divided party and that the Tory right are totally unfazed by the catastrophic performance of Johnson and Truss and are likely to displace him.

At a deeper level the resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol, despite all the concessions, would mean the end of the Brexiteers' dreams. They plan to take advantage of Britain's new independence to push through a massive attack on workers’ rights and produce a sweatshop society that would restore greatness to British capitalism. A settlement with Europe would mean a gradual drift back towards the Customs Union and Single Market.

The dispute with the Democratic Unionist Party is on a more minor key. Donaldson proclaims that the new proposals don't meet his seven tests, but these are carefully crafted to disguise a dilemma.  He understands that a revolt against the British authorities is doomed to failure.  On the other hand, acceptance of a modified protocol would inevitably mean a confrontation with the unionist far right, something he cannot afford if he is to unite unionism and claim the lead over Sinn Féin. The actual strategy is to cooperate with the ERG in the hope of forcing a complete separation from Europe.

The British have given Donaldson a major gift in postponing elections for a year, but they will have to do more. The local assembly cannot be restored until Donaldson is given the opportunity to restore a Unionist electoral majority, but this will be almost impossible given that the right has set their face against any power sharing arrangement with Nationalists. Already there is discussion of further amendments of the Good Friday Agreement and a strengthened Unionist veto.

Even if Sunak managed to force through a deal, all that would have happened is that the Tories would have won an argument with themselves over a section of the Brexit agreement that they themselves wrote. The drive to the right and against Europe would continue.

In Britain, the disagreement over the Northern Ireland Protocol seems on the surface to be a relatively minor aspect of Brexit. However, it speaks to a central contradiction.  The British government wants to impose massive changes on the working class while retaining access to the European market. This project is chaotic and incoherent, but will continue to progress until the working class mobilises against it.

In Ireland the DUP objections to Brexit hide a growing rejection of the GFA settlement and a British willingness to amend it to retain Unionist support. This picture is obscured by the largely unconditional support for the agreement from all sections of Irish nationalism, even when it boils down to the basic elements of systemic sectarian division and continuing British rule. Again, we await a political movement of the Irish working class to establish an alternative.

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