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'Over the wurst': Sausage truce marks a moment of peace for post-Brexit EU-UK relations

There is hope that a deal on chilled meat could mark a moment of calm in a fraught post-Brexit EU-UK relationship.

Boris Johnson welcomes the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel to Chequers this week.
Boris Johnson welcomes the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel to Chequers this week.
Image: PA

THE MOOD MUSIC in relation to Brexit trade talks between the EU and UK is, dare we say, starting to sound more positive, possibly for the first time this year – raising the question of what will be the next move of the new DUP leadership.

Since high-flying tensions at the G7 summit several weeks ago, things have simmered down a good deal, and sausages now seem the least of everyone’s worries.

The chair of Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Dorset MP Simon Hoare, told The Journal that progress has been made because the EU has seen that a more relaxed standards system between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain has worked during grace periods; and also that the EU has shown it doesn’t dislike the UK and wants to strike a workable deal.

In proof of the progress made, a raft of solutions were announced this week by the European Commission for some of the sticking problems associated with the Protocol, including a three-month extension of the ‘sausage war’ issue – a grace period for chilled meats going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “hopefully, when it comes to chilled meats the wurst is behind us, as I think Angela [Merkel] said, or maybe I said that.”

The other solutions included changes to allow for the movement of medicines, guide dogs, and livestock from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – and the European Commission scrapping the need for UK drivers to carry a ‘green card’ for insurance while in the EU, something that will benefit Northern Irish citizens in particular.

These tangible solutions are coupled with a legal ruling that has also smoothened the path for the Protocol to continue – a trading system that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and is all the more complicated for it.

A court challenge brought by unionists that argued that the Protocol contradicts the Good Friday Agreement and EU law were all dismissed by a Belfast judge.

Though the judge did acknowledge that the Protocol contradicts the Act of Union, he ruled that the agreement by Parliament effectively overrode the 200-year-old law. The challenge is to be appealed to Belfast’s Supreme Court.

While new DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson called the Act of Union decision “politically significant”, saying that if it wasn’t resolved it will have “potential consequences for the future stability of political institutions”, practical solutions on the Protocol were made.

Tory MP Simon Hoare has been chair of Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee since 2019. In that time, he and his committee of Tory, Labour, DUP SDLP and Alliance members have questioned the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brexit ministers, and British customs officials and on Brexit and the Protocol. 

He has said previously that businesses and farmers in his constituency would “bite your hand off” to have the trading arrangements that Northern Ireland have.

Speaking to The Journal this week about the future of unionism and trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, he said of criticism of the Protocol: “No one said it was perfect.”

For those who have an appetite to effectively see the Protocol go through the shredding machine, and then something else emerge phoenix-like, I think they’re always going to be disappointed.

He said that HMRC [the UK's Revenue and Customs department] told the committee recently that ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Protocol, that had been suggested during Brexit negotiations, were dismissed as also requiring west-to-east checks and would be more costly.

“Because people have fabricated these constitutional anxieties about the Protocol, it has taken the focus away from considering what are the potential benefits.”

Responding to the verdict relating to the Act of Union, Hoare said: “There’s been SPS [plant and animal checks] between mainland GB and the island of Ireland for decades. Did anybody say, as a result of those trade checks ‘Oh, we are less British’? Of course they didn’t.”

Who in all honesty, unless you are scraping the barrel of political argument, who in the name of heaven, defines their sense of belonging and loyalty and nationhood, by invisible [trade] arrangements?

Hoare also notes that the mixed messaging from the UK government hasn’t helped to depoliticise the trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

He said some figures in the UK government say the Protocol isn’t workable, some say it’s not working the way they had imagined, some said that they hadn’t understood what was involved with it, and some are saying that hard work needs to be done to get the Protocol to work properly.

“And so, we shouldn’t really be surprised if there isn’t some scratching of heads going ‘I wonder really what the position of the UK government actually is… It goes back to having the courage not trying to ride two horses.

I don’t think it’s too late for the Government to speak with one voice and say ‘The Protocol is not perfect, and nobody ever said it would be – but it’s a darn sight better than anything else anyone has ever come up with.

Speaking about the current political state in Northern Ireland, Hoare said that as a Welshman representing an English constituency, he wonders whether political unionism can afford a fractured offering to the electorate, and why loyalists are turning away from the political process.

He makes the point that there seems to be such an “enormous disconnect” between political leaders of unionism and what their electorates appear to want.

“On the abortion issue, [it] was quite interesting that in all the polls, the majority of those who would describe themselves as unionists were in favour of having broadly the same abortion rights as prevail in England and Wales.

For too long, unionism has defined itself against. It’s against Rome rule, it’s against Home rule. It’s against the Republic. It’s against equal marriage. It’s against abortion. The political philosophy that likes to say no and then asks what the question is.

“If you were to take the negative out of the English language, some of these people would have absolutely nothing to say.”

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He said that new communities are not “hog-tied by what Henry VIII might have done, or what Oliver Cromwell did”, and there is a growing middle ground in Northern Ireland that need to be catered for, aside from the “two traditions”.

“We need a united unionist voice which starts to say what it’s in favour of, what it likes, what it seeks to achieve.”

Hoare said that the new leader of the UUP Doug Beattie will be an interesting option for grassroots unionism, and said that there is room for a Northern Irish Conservative Party. When asked if there is work being done on this, he said he doesn’t know, but adds that if he’s ever asked by the party, he would say yes they should, and they should do it now.

Recently Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar announced that Fine Gael would launch a party branch in the North, but would not contest elections there.

It comes ahead of Stormont elections in Northern Ireland to be held next year, which will be hotly contested as this year’s census in Northern Ireland is expected to show for the first time a Catholic majority of the population in the North.

Recently, former DUP leader Edwin Poots suggested that a referendum on the Protocol would be held shortly – a vote in the Stormont Assembly is scheduled for 2024 as part of the Protocol and Brexit trade agreement between the European Union and the UK.

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