Britain’s attack on its own protocol is one more exercise in Brexit gaslighting | Fintan O’Toole

Forget, for the moment, the technical details of the Northern Ireland protocol bill that seeks to renege on Britain’s commitments under its withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Forget – as the British government itself has done – old-fashioned principles of conservatism such as telling the truth, keeping your word and obeying the laws you yourself have made.

Think, rather, of the strategy that Johnny Depp’s lawyers employed against Amber Heard. It is called Darvo – deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. This legislation should be called the Darvo bill: deny the flagrant breach of international law. Attack the very thing you are purporting to defend, which is the political and economic stability of Northern Ireland. And blame others (in this case the EU) for the known consequences of your own choices.

The bill is not, as Boris Johnson claimed on Monday, “a bureaucratic change that needs to be made”. It is an exercise in gaslighting. Its purpose is to invent an alternative reality in which Johnson did not himself create the protocol, did not claim of it that “There will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI, or NI to GB”, did not call it “a good arrangement … with the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences” and did not insist that “it is fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement”.

And certainly did not win an election on the basis that this text was his magic formula that allowed him to get Brexit done. If you think you remember such things, you must be mad. In the pseudo-reality now being conjured, it is the EU that forced this horrible deal on a defenseless Britain. Self-pity has always been the dominant emotion in Brexit, and it has shaped the story the Brexiters are now telling themselves about the protocol.

Lord Frost, who led the British side in the talks, now claims that “My negotiating team was treated brutally as the supplicant representatives of a renegade province.” The UK “was not a fully sovereign power when we negotiated” the protocol. The protocol was thus “essentially imposed under duress” – which makes it neither legally nor morally binding.

This masochistic fantasy was never revealed to parliament or to the electorate – “sign up to the EU’s brutal diktat” was not likely to be a vote winner. But it is the narrative that underlies the new bill. Only by rewriting the very recent past as misery lit, with poor little Britain as the victim of abuse by the dastardly foreigner, can Johnson’s direct responsibility for the protocol be occluded. One might have hoped that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine would have provided a sobering reminder of what brutality, duress and denial of sovereignty actually look like. But the lure of imaginary oppression can, it seems, withstand even that potent dose of reality.

Everybody – including the EU – accepts that there are problems with the implementation of the protocol, which was, after all, a last-minute attempt at damage limitation. But this bill is not about fixing anything. It is about unfixing everything. The bill, in effect, makes almost every aspect of a legal agreement that is a cornerstone of the whole Brexit withdrawal agreement subject to the whims of British ministers. It gives them the power to nullify the vast bulk of the Northern Ireland clauses of that agreement whenever they like.

This is, quite literally, unsettling. The whole effort of the Belfast agreement has been to allow Northern Ireland to settle down after 30 years of bloodshed, to give its people some solid ground on which to stand. Johnson and Liz Truss are very deliberately cutting that ground from under them by creating, in this bill, a charter for arbitrariness. In some ways, it would have been better simply to tear up the whole agreement than to do what the bill envisages, which is to make almost every piece of it contingent on the brainstorms of the Brexit zealots.

The cruel recklessness of the bill is that it rests on a self-fulfilling prophecy of trouble in Northern Ireland. Clause 15 explicitly gives ministers a reserve power to rip up any aspects of the protocol they claim are causing political or economic instability in Northern Ireland. There is a darkly absurd circular logic at work here: we will cause trouble in Northern Ireland by threatening to rip up the protocol and then use that disorder to justify ripping up the protocol.

What can be built on such logic except further absurdity? The real problem with the protocol is that some of its implementation is too complex, especially for small businesses. The bill’s purported solution is to add further complexity by creating a dual regulatory regime, with some goods having to conform only to British standards, some to the EU’s (and indeed some to both). No one seriously thinks this can work in reality – but then, reality is precisely what gaslighting seeks to deny.

This is true, too, of the central claim that the bill is necessary to protect the Belfast agreement and its principle of “cross-community consent”. This is political nonsense – Brexit itself does not have the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, who voted against it in 2016. But it is also legal nonsense. The need for cross-community consent relates, in the Belfast agreement, only to the operation of Northern Ireland’s own political institutions. The withdrawal agreement and the protocol are not within Stormont’s remit. They are Westminster business.

And in fact this is made viciously clear by the bill itself. For it effectively strips Northern Ireland’s elected representatives of their one opportunity to decide the fate of the protocol. The assembly in Belfast, elected just last month, is supposed to have a vote at the end of 2024 on whether it wishes to drop some of its key provisions. We pretty much know how this would go: only 37 of the 90 members of the assembly are opposed to the protocol. Almost certainly, the assembly would vote to keep the protocol in place.

The proposed legislation is a pre-emptive strike against this exercise in democracy. The assembly will now be asked to “consent” to the new, unilaterally imposed arrangements, without the option of restoring the protocol as it was agreed in 2019. The very idea of ​​consent, on which the whole justification for breaching international law is based, becomes a self-evident charade.

The one consolation in all of this is that it is too obviously unreal to work even as gaslighting. Johnson called the stripping of the protocol “trivial”. In this he was, however accidentally, approaching the truth. There is, in the playing at the heart of the bill, a profound moral and political flippancy about the unity of Europe in the face of the Russian threat, about Britain’s standing in the world and about the future of Northern Ireland. The Brexit project, which was supposed to make Britain great again, has reached in this bill the point at which it looks, in a time of serious international crisis, merely trivial.

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