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‘With the Northern Ireland Protocol Deal, Sunak has Recognised Peace is Hard and Conflict is Deadly’

Do Boris Johnson, David Frost and the ERG want Northern Ireland to be stuck in a similar spiral of distrust and possible resumption of violence as the Israelis and Palestinians, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a press conference following the announcement they had struck a deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol on 27 February 2023. Photo: Dan Kitwood/PA/Alamy

Northern Ireland Protocol DealSunak has Recognised Peace is Hard & Conflict is Deadly

Do Boris Johnson, David Frost and the ERG want Northern Ireland to be stuck in a similar spiral of distrust and possible resumption of violence as the Israelis and Palestinians, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

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I’ve been following the latest round of violence in the West Bank with a weary, disheartening, sense of déjà vu. It is incalculably depressing and sad to watch this latest flare up in tensions between Israelis and Palestinian residents, resulting in deaths on either side. This cycle of clash and counter-clash repeats itself over decades, with seemingly no end in sight. 

It was the situation of Palestinians living under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank which first motivated me to apply to become a British diplomat.

In the mid-1980s I specialised in Middle East studies at Durham University. During the summer of my final year, I spent three months at Birzeit University in the West Bank to do research for my dissertation on the situation of Israeli Arabs – Palestinians who live in Israel proper and are Israeli citizens. 

This was my first exposure to the realities of life under conflict. As I travelled around the West Bank with Palestinian friends, we had to pass through numerous Israeli checkpoints. I observed them being asked humiliating questions about where they came from and the purpose of their journey, and regularly being subject to body searches. My friends always kept a beach towel in the car so that they could say they were just going for a swim.

At one point, I interviewed the former mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shakaa, a fierce critic of the Israeli occupation, who had both his legs blown off in an assassination attempt against him by Israeli terrorists. (It is a frequent misconception that terrorism is only a Palestinian phenomenon). He believed that the much vaunted ‘two-state’ solution between Israel and Palestine would never come to fruition because Israel was not ready to make the compromises necessary for this to succeed, including stopping the construction of more settlements in the West Bank. 

Nevertheless, in retrospect, these were relatively peaceful times. It was before the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Shimon Peres was Prime Minister and deeply committed to searching for peace. Clashes regularly occurred between Israelis and Palestinians, but with nothing like the degree of violence which boiled over in the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, which began in 1995. 

This intifada continued until 1993, when the historic Oslo Accords were signed in Washington between Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, setting out a roadmap for peace. Peres was Rabin’s Foreign Minister, who led the secret negotiations paving the way for these accords.

Unfortunately, the Oslo Accords were never respected. Israelis continued to build settlements in the occupied territories. The new Palestinian movement, Hamas, rejected the Oslo Accords and initiated a series of suicide attacks against Israeli targets. As tensions grew, a second intifada erupted in 2000 after the Israeli prime ministerial candidate, Ariel Sharon, made a provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, as an assertion of Israel’s sovereignty over Al-Aqṣā MosqueIslam’s third holiest site. 

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The two uprisings resulted in the death of more than 5,000 Palestinians and some 1,400 Israelis. 

Witnessing the current escalation in violence in the West Bank, I now fear we may be on the verge of a third intifada.

Since the second Intifada, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians, with at least 220 people killed in Israeli attacks across the occupied territories including 48 children. In the same period, Palestinians killed at least 29 Israelis, including one child – the highest death toll since 2008. 

Violence has surged again in the past few days. Two Israeli settlers were shot and killed in the West Bank on Sunday. This attack took place just days after a massive Israeli military raid into Nablus in search of wanted militants left at least 11 Palestinians dead. Later on Sunday, Israeli settlers went on a rampage through Palestinian villages in the Nablus area, resulting in the wounding of at least 390 Palestinians and the death of one Palestinian man. Another Israeli was later killed yesterday.  

It is not hard to foresee more violence breaking out in the coming days and weeks. The prospects for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, already remote, seems ever more hard to envisage. 

I write about these events not to offer any profound thoughts on a solution there, but to emphasise how difficult it is to make the necessary compromises for peace in any conflict and, in that context, to underscore just how remarkable the Good Friday Agreement was in bringing to an end the cycle of violence between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland.  

The Good Friday Agreements took years of patient diplomacy and painstaking behind the scenes negotiations between representatives of Ireland, various political parties of Northern Ireland, and the British Government, buttressed by support and encouragement from the US and the EU.

Success depended on creating trust between peoples with plenty of historic reasons to fear and suspect each other.  Though not on quite the same deadly scale as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, The Troubles were just as intense, lasted almost 30 years and cost the lives of more than 3,500 people.

Despite the widespread euphoria that greeted the deal, implementation of the Agreement was fraught with difficulties and faced numerous setbacks and obstacles along the way. Peace to this day remains fragile.  

Nevertheless, the Good Friday Agreement was an important landmark and succeeded in transforming the political and economic landscape in Northern Ireland. 

The British and Irish Governments were legitimately proud of their achievement in shepherding the deal to fruition. So much so, in fact, that both frequently used it as an example of conflict resolution which could be applied to other situations around the world.

British diplomats regularly invited participants in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations to talk to parties in other conflicts overseas to explain how they broke down the barriers of distrust and found a way to make the compromises necessary for peace. 

Brexit threatened to derail that progress, by resurrecting the possibility that a hard border for customs and other trading checks would need to be re-established on the island of Ireland, becoming a magnet for paramilitary attacks. The Northern Ireland Protocol found a way round this, by keeping Northern Ireland effectively in the Single Market and Customs Unions for goods, and establishing a trading border instead across the Irish Sea, between the British mainland and Northern Ireland. 

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All sides understand this has been an imperfect solution. It has created genuine barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Some of the checks across the Irish Sea have been onerous and have imposed substantive costs on businesses. Perhaps most damagingly, however, the Northern Ireland Protocol has created a psychological sense of difference between Northern Ireland and the UK, which has been understandably painful for the unionist community. 

But for all its imperfections, the Protocol was generally regarded as a better solution than the alternative, which was to risk a resurrection of violence if a hard border was established in Ireland.

The Protocol was the price of delivering Brexit – something which a majority of the unionist population had voted for in the 2016 EU Referendum. If the unionists supported Brexit, this was one of the necessary consequences. 

Barely had the ink on the deal been signed, however, than hard Brexiters were trying to disassociate themselves from its terms.

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who signed the deal, and David Frost, who negotiated it, misleadingly claimed that the Protocol would not lead to physical checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, even though this was explicit in the terms of the deal.

They subsequently argued they never intended the Protocol to be implemented in full, and had only signed it as a way to get Brexit “done”. They claim their hand was forced because Theresa May allegedly mishandled the Brexit talks and traded away Britain’s negotiating leverage. 

Not only did Johnson’s Government fail to implement the Protocol in good faith, it also started demanding that the EU make fundamental changes to the deal. To increase pressure on the EU, the Government presented a bill in Parliament – the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – threatening to unilaterally renege on certain parts of the Protocol, unless their demands were met. Within Northern Ireland, the the Democratic Unionist Party said it would continue to block the  formation of a new government in Northern Ireland unless there were significant changes to the Protocol.

Johnson and Frost’s bullying and bluster, which Liz Truss continued during her brief time in office, did not have the effect – as they like to claim – of bringing the EU back to the negotiating table. Instead, it only damaged trust between the EU and the UK even further, with harmful consequences for other areas of cooperation.

For example, the main reason British scientists are currently excluded from the EU’s scientific Horizon fund is precisely because of the threats to renege on the UK-EU Brexit deal contained in the UK’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. 

It is therefore immensely to Rishi Sunak’s credit that, after only just a few months as Prime Minister, he has managed to turn the situation around. He  has succeeded where his predecessors failed, in rebuilding trust with the EU and securing substantial improvements to the Protocol. These have been encapsulated in the new Windsor Framework deal he announced with EU Commission President, Ursula Van der Leyen, this week. 

The new deal includes several concessions from the EU side, such as agreeing to a fast ‘green lane’ for goods from the UK destined only for the Northern Ireland market, which will not require customs checks. The new deal will also see UK-approved medicine available in Northern Ireland at the same time as the rest of the country, while a ‘Stormont brake’ has been approved that allows elected politicians in Northern Ireland to make decisions on which EU goods laws apply to them.

This is an extraordinary breakthrough, which would have been impossible to contemplate under either Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, with whom the EU was barely willing to talk at all. 

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Will Johnson, Frost or some of their hardline Brexit supporters in the European Research Group, really try to undermine this deal now? Will they do so, knowing that the deal appears to have the royal seal of approval? Will they continue to exploit the situation in Northern Ireland to damage relations with the EU even further or to try to prove their own continuing relevance? Will they continue riling up the DUP to oppose it? Will the DUP continue to fall for their siren song, despite having been repeatedly lied to by Johnson and Frost about the original terms of the Protocol?

Moreover, does anyone really believe that if Johnson chooses to oppose the Windsor deal it will be because he seriously cares about Northern Ireland? He will certainly be studying it and weighing his options. But, just as with his approach on the Brexit referendum, his only calculation will be whether supporting or opposing it will play best for him personally. 

Johnson, Frost and others of their ilk have already damaged Britain’s economy, democratic institutions and international reputation, through their pursuit of a hard Brexit. Do they want a complete breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement on their hands as well? Do they want Northern Ireland to be stuck in the same, wearying spiral of distrust, breakdown of cooperation, and possible resumption of violence, as the Israelis and Palestinians?

As events in the Middle East show us today, peace is hard and conflict is deadly. All sides to the conflict in Northern Ireland deserve credit for their role in achieving the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago. This new Windsor Framework may be the best option to keep it on track and deserves all of our support. Let us show the world that we can continue to provide a good model for sustaining peace. 

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