Opinions & Ideas

Author: John Bruton Page 1 of 60

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SHIRLEY WILLIAMS RIP

I was really sad to hear of the death, at 90 years of age, of Shirley Williams.

Shirley was a sincere believer in the European Union, and in Britain’s place at the heart of Europe. She sacrificed her career in the Labour Party because of her belief in this cause.

She continued to be active in European causes in the Social Democrat and Liberal Democrat parties.

She was one of the least cynical people I ever met.

She was warm hearted, and interested in others, and tireless in her pursuit of justice.

I met her a number of times, when we were both in ministerial office, in the house of mutual friends, and at public events.

I was  due to campaign with her, in 2016, to persuade the British people to stay in the European Union. We were to speak together in Birmingham at a pro Remain meeting on 16 June 2016, and had both arrived in the city for the meeting, when the news came through that Jo Cox, a young Labour MP, had been murdered while campaigning for Remain in her constituency.

As a result of this shocking event, all meetings in the referendum campaign were called off that night.

On that occasion, and on many others, I was impressed by Shirley Williams’ deep sincerity and optimism, qualities of the first importance in political life.

A NO DEAL BREXIT ON 1 MAY?

©AP Images/European Union-EP 

The risk that we will wake up on 1 May, to find we have a “No Deal “Brexit after all, has not disappeared.

The deadline for ratification by the European Parliament of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the UK was to be 28 February 2021.But the European Parliament postponed the deadline to 30 April. It did this because it felt it could not trust the UK to implement the TCA properly and as agreed and ratified. 

This distrust arose because the implementation of the Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement had been unilaterally changed by the UK.

If any party to an international agreement takes it upon itself unilaterally to alter the agreement, the whole basis of international agreements with that party disappears.

The matters in dispute between the UK and the EU( the Protocol and vaccines) remain unresolved.

The EU is taking the UK to court about the Protocol , but the court is not likely to decide anything before the new deadline of 30 April.

In the normal course of events, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU would be discussed in the relevant Committee of the European Parliament, before coming to the Plenary session of the Parliament for ratification.

The next meeting of the Parliament’s Committee on International Trade is due to take place on 14th and 15th April, and the agenda for the meeting has been published.

It includes a discussion on the enforcement of trade agreements, the General System of Preferences, and (significantly) trade related aspects of Covid 19.

It makes no mention at all  of the TCA with the UK!  

Trade related aspects of Covid 19 will inevitably include a discussion on vaccine protectionism, a highly contentious issue between the EU and the UK that has poisoned relations and led to bitter commentary in the media.

The fact that the Committee has not even included a discussion of  the TCA with the UK, on its agenda for what may well be the only meeting it will have before the 30  April deadline is potentially very significant.

The TCA runs to 2000 pages , and its contents, if ratified,  will take precedence over EU law.

To ratify such an agreement, without proper scrutiny in the relevant committees of Parliament, could be seen as a dereliction of Parliament’s responsibility of scrutiny. We should not forget the scrutiny that was applied to the much more modest EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement with Canada. The same goes for the deal with Mecosur.

Furthermore, the TCA would, if ratified, set up a network of committees to oversee its implementation. These will meet in private and their work will diminish the ongoing oversight by the European Parliament  of a host of issues affecting all 27 EU member states.

The TCA also contains a system of disputes resolution mechanisms that will quickly be overwhelmed by work.  The TCA has  many items of unfinished business, on which the European Parliament will want to express a view. It is hard to see how any of this can be done before 30 April!

The UK government of Boris Johnson has adopted a deliberately confrontational style in its negotiations with the EU.  The more rows there are, the happier is the support base which Boris Johnson is seeking to rally to his Conservative Party. Johnson’s European strategy has always been about electoral politics, not economic performance. This has led to almost complete mutual incomprehension between the UK government and EU.

If the European Parliament ratifies the TCA, without their  first having been seen to be a satisfactory outcome to the  EU/UK negotiations about the Ireland Protocol and about the exportation of vaccines, it will be a political setback for the Parliament and a source of  immense satisfaction for Boris Johnson.

One should never underestimate the role emotion can play in politics. The entire Brexit saga is a story of repeated triumphs of emotion over reason. And the European Parliament is not immune to this ailment.

Boris Johnson could be pushing his luck a bit far this time.

CAREFUL THOUGHT NEEDED ON BORDER POLLS

The history of Northern Ireland, since 1920, demonstrates the danger of attempting to impose, by a simple majority, a constitutional settlement, and an identity, on a minority who feel they have been overruled.

Those pressing for an early border poll on Irish unity, which would have to take place in both parts of Ireland, should reflect on this. Such a poll could repeat the error of 1920 and add to divisions, rather than diminish them.

 I was a bit surprised then to see Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach, call for the border polls to take place in 2028 (the 30th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement). He knows how fraught things could become.

 Setting target dates, without having first done all the groundwork and collected all the data, can lead to unintended consequences.

Target dates tend to be misinterpreted as promises, and a sense of inevitability takes over, and rational discussion of the risks becomes impossible.

This is what happened with the 2016 UK Referendum on Brexit.

 Reducing a complex issue, with many nuances and gradations, to an over simplified Yes/No question is hazardous in itself.

Setting target dates for a referendum, before any details have been worked out, is even more reckless.

As  the Brexit experience in 2016 has shown, it can also lead to the oppression of minority view points, lasting division, and to unforeseen consequences. .

For these reasons, I was also surprised to see Sinn Fein spending large sums in advertisements in the US, calling for early referenda on Irish unity, without reference to the lessons we have all learned from the Brexit referendum.

A SIMPLE MAJORITY POLL MAY BE LEGAL, BUT IS IT WISE AT THIS STAGE?

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) does indeed provide for such a poll to be called, on the basis of a political judgement by the UK government that a majority in Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity.

 But it does not require the UK government to consult with the Irish government, even though a poll on the same subject would have to take place in Ireland too, probably on the same day, and the effects of the polls would be felt across the whole island!

 This omission suggests to me that the provisions for border polls in the GFA were not thought through by the negotiators at the time.

Even though all other legislative decisions in Northern Ireland must, under the GFA, be agreed by a procedure of parallel consent of both nationalists and unionists, this, seminal and possibly irrevocable, decision to change  sovereign status is to be taken for Northern Ireland, by a simple majority of  just one vote in a referendum. There is no room left for negotiation on that in GFA.

As Seamus Mallon recognised, this is a recipe for trouble.

 The notion of deciding to enforce Irish unity on the basis of a 51%/49% vote sits uncomfortably beside the principles in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, agreed by Albert Reynolds and John Major.

That Declaration is the foundation on which the GFA, and the entire peace process, was built by the two governments.

The wise words of the Downing Street Declaration should influence both

  • whether , and when, a border should take place, and
  • how voters in both parts of Ireland should vote, if such a poll is eventually called.

The Downing Street Declaration says that Irish unity should be achieved

“by those who favour it, persuading those who do not, peacefully and without coercion or violence”

I do not think a poll in favour of unity, carried by a small margin, and before a majority of the unionist community have been persuaded of the merits of Irish unity, could truly be said to meet that criterion agreed between the governments.

 It might be legally valid, but not politically wise.

There is little evidence that this type of persuasion is taking place within Northern Ireland between the two communities.  In some senses they are more polarised than ever, and are talking past one another rather than with one another.

For example, the Sinn Fein advertisements advancing arguments for unity should have been in the Belfast Telegraph or the Newsletter rather than in the New York Times!

It is the unionists, not Americans, who need to be persuaded.

I do not see much evidence that those who say they want an early border poll, are putting forward concrete ideas to persuade unionists to cease to be British unionist, and instead   embrace Irish unity.

 What have nationalists said to them so far, that would show them how their British heritage and ethos would be respected in a united Ireland?

THE GOAL MUST BE STABILITY

In the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds said on behalf of the Irish people

“Stability will not be found under any system which is refused allegiance, or rejected on grounds of identity, by a significant minority of those governed by it”.

This was a humane and realistic statement.

I do not think a poll on unity, carried by a narrow majority of say 51% to 49%, could be guaranteed to deliver a system that would not be

 “at risk of being rejected, on grounds of identity, by a significant minority”.

 If it were passed on that basis, there would not be much stability afterwards.

UNIONIST ASPIRATIONS WOULD STILL HAVE TO BE RESPECTED AFTER ANY POLL

It is also important to recognise that the GFA itself says that, regardless of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, there must be

“full respect for , and just and equal treatment for, the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities”

Those who favour a border poll have an obligation to spell out exactly how the British identity, and monarchist ethos, of the unionist population might given the required

“equal treatment and respect”,

 across the whole island in the wake of Irish unity.

 This will not be easy. Some the changes required might go against public opinion here.

 The recent furore about commemorating the dead of the RIC, 100 years after they were killed, is a foretaste of the sort of resistance that might be encountered. Symbols can be very divisive.

There could also be implications for levels of domestic taxation here, as the UK subsidy to public services in Northern Ireland at present, comes to 20% of GDP there.

It is also important to stress that a border poll in favour of unity in both jurisdictions might not necessarily settle the constitutional issue finally, especially if the margin was narrow.

Paragraph (v) of the GFA will oblige the government of a united Ireland to continue to respect the “aspirations” of the unionist community, in what was Northern Ireland.  It is quite likely that, in certain areas, large local majorities would continue to aspire to rejoin the UK. North Armagh, East Belfast, Antrim and many other places come to mind.

 Even if such a continuing existence of such an aspiration did not pose a security risk, it is an aspiration that the authorities would, in any event, be obliged to respect under paragraph (v) Good Friday Agreement.

 On the face of it, this is not a recipe for stability.

IS THERE A BETTER WAY?

I believe the focus now should instead be on making all the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement yield their full potential, rather than fixating on territorial sovereignty through a border poll. Personally, I would like to see Irish unity, but we must first build sustained reconciliation, and shared goals, between the two communities in Northern Ireland. That is a commonsense precondition for success.

The voters of the South of Ireland, who would also have to vote in a poll on Irish unity, would need to ask themselves, before they vote, if the criteria for Irish unity, set out on their behalf by Albert Reynolds in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, have been met, or are likely to be met as a result of the poll.

Voters ought not just ask themselves what they would LIKE to happen, but what would be LIKELY to happen, if Irish unity was carried by a narrow 51/49 vote and there was a large unhappy minority who felt they were being over ruled.

That will be a heavy responsibility.

Voters would also have to ask themselves if they are ready to take on the financial responsibilities that would flow from their decision on unity.

Dublin would have to take over the net subvention to support the Northern Ireland budget that currently is met by London. It comes to a large figure, which would be larger still, if salaries and welfare rates in Northern Ireland had to be brought up to levels south of the border.

 There are also issues of the national debt and pensions.

 The net costs, although substantial, need not be a obstacle to unity, so long as people know about them in advance, and can make an informed decision.

Let us think this thing through, and avoid precipitate commitments to dates for referendums, before every angle has been figured out.

A Difficult Birth: the early years of Northern Ireland, 1920-25

We are approaching the centenary of the coming into existence of Northern Ireland, whose Parliament was opened by King George the fifth on 22 June 1921. This event took place just three weeks before the Truce of 11 July 1921 that ended the Irish War of Independence.

 The creation of the Parliament of Northern Ireland had already been authorised by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It had also authorised the creation of a Parliament of Southern Ireland, with similar devolved powers.

 Elections to both parliaments were held on 24 May 1921, but the Southern Parliament only met once, because the Sinn Fein members refused to sit there, and sat instead in what constituted itself as the second Dail. The Dail was considered to be an illegal assembly by the UK authorities.

When the Northern Parliament met, a substantial majority of those who were elected DID take their seats.  The Unionist Party had won 40 seats of the 52 seats with 66% of the vote, against 6 seats each for Sinn Fein and for Joe Devlin’s constitutional Nationalists who had respectively won 20%, and 11.8%, of the vote. The size of the Unionist victory caused surprise in some quarters, although the voting had taken place against a background of continuing violence. The Sinn Fein and Nationalist MPs did not take their seats in the Northern Parliament at this stage.

The powers of the Northern Ireland Parliament were quite limited, as pointed out at the time, by Lord Donoughmore  and others.

 He said it was “unsound” to set up a Parliament without the usual powers of taxation. Over 90% of the taxes in Northern Ireland (NI) were, he said, to be set and collected by the Imperial Parliament in London.

 To grant the new NI Parliament the power to spend, without also having the responsibility of raising taxes to finance that spending, lent itself to gesture politics and to the systemic avoidance of responsibility. That problem remains to this day in Northern Ireland and other devolved UK administrations.

The Unionists, led by Sir James Craig, who became Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, did not regard the establishment of Northern Ireland as an end in itself. In theory at least, they would have preferred if there had been no devolution of powers at all, and if the whole of Ireland continued to be governed directly from Westminster. In establishing an administration in NI, Ulster Unionists saw themselves as taking on a duty, rather than enjoying a newly conferred freedom.

While they had opposed Home Rule for a united island of Ireland, they were willing to live with Home Rule for two separate parts of Ireland, as provided for in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.

This arrangement prevented their part of Ulster being subject to Dublin rule, which was their overriding objective.  

Northern Ireland did not enjoy a peaceful birth, as we all know. Violence had  already commenced in 1920. The first casualty was a Clareman, Denis Moroney, an RIC sergeant, who was killed by the IRA in Derry city on 15 May 1920.

But the violence was more overtly sectarian, and lasted much longer, in Belfast. It was am intensification of six similar sectarian outbursts that had occurred at different times in the 19th century.

There were particular reasons for the outburst after the end of the Great War.

Military recruitment had led to a labour shortage, and many Catholics had been recruited, during the War, to fill jobs in Belfast that had previously been filled by Protestants, in places like the ship yards.

The end of the war in November 1918 meant that many Loyalists returned from the Front, and wanted their jobs back. This led to violent evictions of Catholic workers from their jobs. The Dublin Castle government refused to intervene, on the ground that these were “trade union issues”, and the displaced workers were even initially denied unemployment benefits.

This led to retaliatory attacks on trams carrying Loyalist workers to or from their jobs, whenever the tram route passed through a predominantly Nationalist neighbourhood. Once one knew the terminus of a tram, one could work out the likely religious affiliation of most of the passengers on it!

Several Protestants, who worked in predominantly Catholic workforces, such as the docks and the brewing industry, were also edged out of their jobs.

The IRA murder of RIC commander Gerald Smyth in Cork in July 1920 led to retaliations against the small Catholic community in Banbridge, Smyth’s home town.

Catholics and Protestants in mixed neighbourhoods were burned, or intimidated, out of their homes.

As in the early 1970’s, fugitives sought refuge in Dublin and Cork.

 An ill judged and ineffective boycott of goods manufactured in the North was organised in the South, as a response to the attacks on Catholics.

Under the Truce of 11 July 1921, the IRA had agreed that attacks on Crown forces and civilians were to cease, and there was to be no interference with Government or private property.

Apart from some score settling and house burning, the Truce held in the South until the outbreak of the Civil War a year later. This Truce created space in which it was possible to negotiate a Treaty that led to the creation a Free State government for Southern Ireland (a government that did have the responsibility of raising taxation!).

 But the Truce of July 1921 did not hold in Northern Ireland.  In fact the conflict intensified there, for reasons partially explored in this book.

 Attacks on Catholics continued, and the James Craig’s government took little effective action to stop it. They did establish special constabularies, but these were recruited mainly among the Protestant community.

 In fact, some noteworthy sectarian killings were carried out by people wearing police uniforms.

 60% of the fatalities in this conflict were Catholic, although Catholics were only 35% of the population. Thanks to the pre War gun running, the Loyalist community had more arms and ammunition than Nationalists had.

In early 1922, after the signing of the Treaty, but before the outbreak of the Civil War here, meetings were arranged between Michael Collins and James Craig, in an attempt to reduce the violence. The very fact of such meetings taking place place showed political courage on the part of both leaders.

 In return for an end to the boycott of Belfast goods in the South, they agreed that there would be a reorganisation of policing on non sectarian lines. A Police Committee and a Conciliation Committee were to be set up.  But grassroots Unionist opinion did not take kindly to the pact.

 Neither Collins nor Craig was fully in control of their own side. As a result, false hopes were raised.

 The “Irish Independent” even hoped that the Collins/ Craig pact would be “a great and decided advance towards Irish union”. This optimistic interpretation was without foundation, but it was guaranteed to annoy Unionists. The same excess of optimism is being repeated in some quarters today, in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It could have similar malign results.

 In fact, sectarian killings intensified in the wake of the Craig/Collins pact, on an escalating tit for tat basis.

Six people, some elderly, were killed in Lisdrumliska near Newry by the IRA in June 1922, in an attempt at ethnic cleansing of Protestants from that townland. Three Catholics were shot dead in Cushendun by police, in a futile search for arms.

 When the Civil War started in the South, in August 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts, the trouble subsided somewhat in the North, as many (but not all) of the Northern division of the IRA (like Charles Haughey’s father) went south to join the pro Treaty National Army.

Alan Parkinson gives a thorough account of the suffering on all sides in these years.

 He gives the victims a name, and in so doing restores their humanity. They are no longer just statistics, but people who came from somewhere, lived a life, and then had that life deliberately cut short, by someone who still enjoys the unearned privilege of anonymity.

The circumstances of its birth determine what Northern Ireland is today. Those pressing for a border poll should read this book.

HOW TO COPE WITH CHINA’S RISE

Above (on the image) is a link to a policy statement on relations with China prepared by Radek Sikorski MEP and approved by the members on the EPP group in the European Parliament.

The economic rise of China has been accompanied by a much more assertive political stance on its part.

Chinese policies are causing disquiet by the claims it is making to hegemony over the South China, its attitude to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and its assimilationist policies towards Tibetans, Uighurs and its intrusive and illiberal relations with religious minorities.

On the other hand, the positive economic contribution of China has been substantial.

It helped mitigate the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the global economy and it has lifted a billion of its own people out of poverty. It is investing in infrastructure abroad and is making vaccine supplies available to poorer countries.

The rise of China has led to anxiety in the United States.

China’s GDP ( a poor measure of welfare) may exceed that of the US by 2028 and this worries Americans.

China’s military spending is rising, but is still well below that of the US. Some Americans feel a military confrontation of some kind with China is inevitable (possibly over Taiwan which China has said it wants to reintegrate by 2049).

The paper written by Radek Sikorski sets out how the EU might respond to all of this. I believe it is well worth reading. I would welcome your views on it

PATRICK KAVANAGH

“Patrick Kavanagh, a biography” by Antoinette Quinn is one of the best, and most engaging , biographies I have ever read.

 It was published by Gill and Macmillan in 2001 and it has been resting unread on my bookshelf ever since. Thanks to lockdown, I finally got around to reading it.

This book opens a window into the social history of Ireland from the 1920’s up to the 1960’s. Kavanagh saw himself as reacting , through his poetry and prose, against the romanticised Ireland of the Literary revival, embodied by Yeats and Synge. 

As a journalistic controversialist,   he even went as far as advocating defunding the Abbey Theatre, the Folklore Commission, and the Arts Council . He favoured the abandonment of compulsory Irish. He objected to the pomp surrounding the President,

While he is remembered  primarily as a poet, he made his meagre living mainly as a freelance journalist, writing for publications such as   “ The Irish Press”, “the Bell”, the “Catholic Standard”(as its film critic),  and the “Irish Farmers Journal”. 

He was not afraid to offend, or to advocate unpopular opinions.  In today’s more puritanical era, he would probably have been the victim of the intolerant Cancel Culture (as was Kevin Myers recently).

He stayed on the farm in South Monaghan until he was 30, when he moved to Dublin, and later London for a while. His early poetry was rural realist, his later work was what one might call Ballsbridge romantic. 

Unrequited love was a theme in both periods, most famously expressed in “On Raglan Road”.

This biography discusses every aspect of his life, his relationship with his parents and his siblings, his many girlfriends, his financial struggles and his eventual alcoholism. 

He was quite a self centred person, but made some lasting friends, notably the late Senator Eoin Ryan (whose political views he would not have shared, but who was consistently generous to him). Other writers were also very helpful to him, but were not always thanked.

To read this book is to live through the life of Dublin in the years before, during , and just after the Second World War. It is brilliant.

LIVING THROUGH THE SECOND WORLD WAR

I have recently read two books that give different insights into the horror of the Second World War, and how it tested people’s values.

“The Son and Heir” by Alexander Munninghof ( published by Amazon Crossing in 2020) tells the story of the author’s own, once wealthy, Dutch family. They were part of the pre war German speaking business elite in Latvia. Initially part of a privileged minority, they had to leave Latvia, when the Hitler/Stalin Pact allocated Latvia to the Soviet sphere of influence in 1939.  

The author’s grandfather was a domineering character, who had retained a strong ancestral affiliation with the Netherlands.  After the family’s ejection from Latvia, he soon re established himself and his business there. 

But the author’s own father, who had been sent to the Netherlands to school against his wishes, felt more German. He rebelled against his father by joining the SS at the beginning of the war . He served on the Eastern Front. On his return to the Netherlands after the War, he was imprisoned.

 The family tensions, upheavals and the  bitter separations described in this book illustrate the cost of war, even for those who survive uninjured.

“The Ratline, love, lies and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive” by Philippe Sands (published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson) is the story of Otto Wachter, a lifelong Austrian Nazi .He was involved in an attempted Nazi coup against the Austrian leader Dolfuss, and became influential when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

 Wachter later became a senior official in the German occupation, first of Poland, and later of Ukraine.  He was involved in the extermination of thousands of Jews in both places.

 After the defeat of Germany he escaped across the Alps on foot to Italy, leaving his wife and children behind in Vienna. 

 He was sheltered for several years in a convent in Rome. He might have found his way to Latin America, like other Nazi war criminals did, but he died in July 1949 of an infection he contracted by swimming the polluted Tiber river. 

Like Munninghoff’s book, this is the story of a family. 

Wacther’s devoted wife supported him and his ideology completely. She kept letters that enabled Sands to describe the life of a rising figure in the Nazi hierarchy. 

 Sands also describes the different ways in which Wachter’s children try to cope with his legacy.

Both books are worth reading.

THE ARTICLE 16 ROW IS LIABLE TO HAPPEN AGAIN UNLESS LESSONS ARE LEARNED

What lessons are to be learned from the unfortunate controversy around the European Commission’s brief consideration of using Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to stop exports from the EU of some Covid 19 vaccines to Britain, via Northern Ireland?

The UK Minister, Michael Gove said “it was a moment when trust was eroded and damage done” and the chairman of the  UK’s House of Commons EU committee described it as a “vindictive act”.

On the other hand, the EU has a sovereign right to impose export restrictions, and also to protect its market from imports of goods that do not comply with EU standards (whether these come into Ireland or to any other part of the EU)

Lessons must be learned, because this sort of Article 16 problem could recur over and over again for years to come, as the UK diverges more and more from the EU.

The first thing to say is that the proposed EU restrictions on exports of certain vaccines are still going ahead.

All that has changed is that Article 16 of the Protocol is not now being used to enforce these restrictions. The restrictions will presumably be enforced in, and by, the pharmaceutical manufacturing plants themselves, inside the EU rather than on the border.

Secondly, the restrictions only apply to vaccines that were subject to an Advanced Purchase Agreement with the European Commission, where the European taxpayer had put up money to help the pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop and test the vaccines. This was agreed on the basis that the EU would then get supplies of the vaccines under an agreed schedule from the manufacturer.

 This is not unreasonable in itself.

 It is open to question whether the present elaborate process of export restriction and authorisation was really necessary to ensure the EU got the supplies. A threat of civil legal action for breach of contract would seem to be a more targeted approach, than the highly bureaucratic export ban we now have.

Of course, it is theoretically possible that Northern Ireland could have been used as a backdoor to circumvent the EU restriction of exports to the rest of the UK. To avoid this, the regulation, now in force, still requires information to be provided on vaccines going to Northern Ireland.

SHOULD ARTICLE 16 HAVE BEEN USED?

 But it is quite clear that Article 16 was not the right tool to use to achieve the goal the Commission had set for itself.

 We should look at what Article 16 of the Protocol allows.

It provides for unilateral safeguard measures to be adopted by either the EU or the UK, where there are difficulties that “are liable to persist”.

Under Article 16 the safeguard measures should only be ones that are “strictly necessary to remedy the situation”.

Arguably neither condition was met in this case.

 The vaccine supply difficulties are inherently temporary.  They are not likely to persist.

Other measures could have been or be adopted, within the EU itself, to require the vaccine manufacturers to meet their obligations, without using Article 16 of the Protocol. So the use of Article 16 was not “strictly necessary.” It should be a last resort, not a first resort.

DID THE COMMMISSION MAKE ITS DECISIONS IN THE BEST WAY?

So why did then use of Article 16 come to be considered by the Commission at all?

There was a degree on panic in many countries, notably Germany and France, about the pace of supply of vaccines.

The Commission was coming under pressure.

 Even though it was the manufacturers that were failing to fulfil their contracts, it was the Commission that had negotiated those contracts. The fact that negotiating this sort of contract was something new for the Commission was not an acceptable excuse, nor was it enough to say that the delays might have been much greater, and the price to the taxpayer much higher, if each the 27 EU countries had been left to negotiate their own contracts, and outbid one another. But the Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen felt she had to show she was “doing something”.

She decided on the speedy introduction of selective export restrictions.

 In the interests of speed, she adopted a decision making procedure, that maximised the possibility of mistakes. Rather than call a meeting of the full Commission, which could have been done by secure video, she decided to push the ban through using a written procedure, leaving minimal time for scrutiny.

Adopting such a radical measure, like an export restriction by this short cut written procedure was inherently problematic.  While the EU has a sovereign right to restrict exports outside its borders, it is an inherently serious step, and should never again be attempted in this way.

Article 17 (8) of the Treaty makes clear that the Commission, as a body, is responsible for its acts, and the Commission’s own rules of Procedure state clearly that “ the Commission shall act collectively”.

 The last minute use of the written procedure to make an important international decision minimised the possibility of genuinely collective decision making by Commissioners. That is why it should not happen again. It weakens the authority of Commission, and thus of the EU as a whole.

THE NORTHERN IRELAND PROTOCOL IS A FRAGILE COMPROMISE

 The other lesson to take from what happened is that it exposed the inherently fragile nature of compromise that is the Northern Ireland Protocol.

 The Protocol requires the UK to implement and enforce EU law in respect of goods standards within part of the UK, and to prevent goods entering that part of the UK, if they do not comply with these standards. That is no small thing on principle.

 It may not be so difficult to implement it now, when the UK has only just left the EU, and UK and EU goods standards are almost identical. But, gradually, as the UK begins to adopt different standards for goods to those applicable in the EU, the risks of future controversies will increase.

Every time either the UK or the EU adopts a standard for goods that is different from the one the other is applying, there will be an additional barrier or restriction between Britain and Northern Ireland. Because the issues are highly technical, the flare up could be sudden and unexpected, with the risk of wholly unintended consequences, as the latest controversy shows.

One should add that there is also the possibility of disputes on the interpretation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU.

Under Article 9.4 of the TCA, either side may adopt “rebalancing measures”, where there is a significant divergence from the Level Playing Field provisions of the TCA, if they feel they have been put at a disadvantage by the divergence.

To the extent, if any, that these “rebalancing  measures” affect Northern Ireland, there will be an additional issue to be solved.

So one must hope that it never comes to this, and that the UK and the EU work in harmony in future, because the more disharmony there is, the greater will be the political problems for both parts of Ireland.

This will require a lot of tedious work by diplomats and officials in Brussels, London, Dublin and Belfast to operate an early warning system to avoid conflicts like the recent one. This is a permanent, but inevitable, extra burden of Brexit.

THE EU AND THE NEW BIDEN ADMINISTRATION

The newly sworn-in US President Joe Biden has pledged to and I quote repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, so what will EU-US relations look like under a Biden presidency. The EU will certainly be looking to nurture its friendship with their Washington Post Brexit, closer to home, diplomatic relations have been somewhat strained over recent hours after an indication from the UK, although perhaps we’re hearing that that’s been reversed now to deny the EU Ambassador in London full diplomatic status of that. I think Boris Johnson is set just in the last few minutes that that will not be the case that there will be full diplomatic status given to the EU ambassador to the United Kingdom. For more on all this. Let’s talk to former Taoiseach  and EU ambassador to the United States John Bruton a very good afternoon to John  Bruton. Thanks for taking our call that news just coming to hand from my I think Boris Johnson in the last few minutes in relation to the question of the status of the the UK the EU Ambassador and UK. I thought it’s important that …

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AN ULSTER LOYALIST TELLS HIS STORY

Billy Hutchinson is the leader of the small Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and represents it on Belfast City Council. He was, for a time, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  He has recently written an autobiography entitled “My Life in Loyalism”, published by Merrion Press.

Billy Hutchinson  played an important part, while in prison in the 1980’s and later on, in encouraging the Loyalist paramilitaries towards political accommodation, instead of violence. 

 Brexit creates a new, and potentially difficult, relationship between  Ulster Loyalism and the rest of Ireland.  So understanding Loyalism is more important than ever. This book is timely.

 Hutchinson contributed to the peace process.  As the leader of the UVF prisoners in Long Kesh, through   his contacts with Pat Thompson, his IRA counterpart,   he helped get  Catholic and Protestant clergy involved in exploring political ways forward.

 The UVF had been founded in 1965, and was a violent response to the  IRA threat in the late 1960’s. It  was one of a proliferation of Loyalist paramilitary groups. It was a rival of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The UVF was the more disciplined than the UDA and operated through a cell structure, whereas the UDA tended to hold  public parades, and provide an umbrella under which several  Loyalist groups could shelter.

 The PUP, formed in 1975, became the vehicle the UVF used to move into politics and away from violence .

Billy Hutchinson had been born in 1955. He was a native of the Shankill Road and intensely proud of his locality. His father was a NI Labour supporter, with numerous Catholic friends, but his mother was a more traditional unionist.

 Billy was first drawn onto political activity through soccer.

 He was a supporter of Linfield FC. To get to Linfield’s ground at Windsor Park, Shankill supporters of  the club   had to cross the Falls Road  and walk past the nationalist Unity Flats. This fortnightly procession of Linfield supporters, before and after home games, became an occasion for mutual provocations between the two communities. 

This became especially acute when the sectarian temperature rose in the late 1960’s.

Hutchinson, then a tall teenager, older looking than his years, took a leading role in managing these confrontations.  He saw himself as defending his locality. He also saw the Civil Rights movement as a front for the IRA, and the IRA as attempting to force unionists into a united Ireland.

As he admits, the crude view of the UVF was that, if they killed enough Catholics, the Catholic community would pressurize the IRA to stop. 

This sort of thinking also had echoes in more “respectable “  unionism. Former Home Affairs Minister, Bill Craig, told a Vanguard rally in 1972, to 

“build up the dossiers on the men and women who are a menace to this country, because if the politicians fail, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy”. 

Of course, the IRA was equally brutal and indiscriminate. For example, Protestant families were being forced to abandon their homes in the New Barnsley estate when Catholics were forced out in other parts of the city.

Hutchinson and his friends felt that the RUC and the British Army were not protecting the Loyalist community from IRA intimidation. 

 Still a teenager, he  became an armed bodyguard for the UVF leader Gusty Spence. He also undertook offensive operations, and gave weapons training, while also holding down a day job.

 This book gives an insight into the life, and the infighting, within Loyalist paramilitarism.

 Many people were shot on the basis of suspicions, often unfounded.

 Hutchinson is a teetotaller, but much of the social life of Loyalism took place in pubs and clubhouses. 

The reader is introduced to many unusual characters. One was a Catholic, Jimmy McKenna, whose brother Arthur had been killed by the IRA. Jimmy was determined to get revenge. So he offered his services to the UVF. After some hesitation they accepted him.  He proved very useful because of his knowledge of republican areas. McKenna was eventually found to be working for the security forces.

 Although there was much indiscriminate violence, there was also some political thinking taking place among Loyalists as early as the 1970’s.

 For example, in January 1974, the UVF gave cautious support of a proposal by Desmond Boal, a former Unionist and DUP MP, for a federal Ireland , with autonomy for Northern Ireland . Boal had worked on the idea with Sean McBride, a former Irish Minister for External Affairs.

  At the time, Hutchinson did not dismiss it, but asked a reasonable question. How could concessions to republicans be considered, while the IRA was still in existence, and people were being killed?

THE AMORALITY OF ARMED STRUGGLE

 Then, at only 19 years of age, in late 1974, the law caught up with Billy Hutchinson. He was convicted of the murder of two Catholics, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan. 

As he puts it;

“ Even though the evidence was pointing toward my involvement in the shooting, I tried to maintain an air of defiance,”

and  disingenuously added 

 “Loughran and Morgan had been identified as active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know”. 

This amoral detachment about the ending of two young lives is chilling. 

 But this sort of amorality is intrinsic to all “armed struggle”. 

 If one does not want that form of psychological and moral deformation to occur, one should not start armed struggles at all, especially if other potential remedies had  not been exhausted.  One should never retrospectively justify or glorify such killings.  That applies equally to the events of 1916, 1919, and 1970. It applies as much to Kilmichael , as it does  to Greysteel  or  Narrow Water .

Billy Hutchinson spent a long period in jail in Long Kesh for his crime, from 1975 until 1990. 

PRISON LIFE

He gives an interesting account of prison life. 

Gusty Spence was the commander of the UVF prisoners and military discipline was maintained among them. A similar regime applied among the IRA prisoners. 

Hutchinson maintained a high level of fitness while in gaol, running 15 miles a day inside the perimeter of his compound.

 He had left school at 14 years of age but, while in prison , he passed his O levels and A levels, and got a degree in town planning,  a useful qualification for someone who is now a member of Belfast City Council!

After his release in 1990, he was involved with Gusty Spence and others, in the peace process which  led to the announcement, in October 1994,  by the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) , of a ceasefire. This acknowledged the hurt suffered by victims  of Loyalist violence, something the IRA has yet  to do fully. 

THE DEMOCRATIC ROOTS OF LOYALISM

One of the principles set out by the CLMC in this announcement was that 

  “there must be no dilution of the democratic procedure through which the rights of self determination of the people of Northern Ireland are guaranteed”.

 This vital issue of democratic procedure will take on a new relevance after Brexit. 

 Under the  Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Treaty, many  of the laws to be applied  the Northern Ireland will emanate from the EU, but without  a democratic procedure involving  elected representatives  of  the people of Northern Ireland . That will call out for a remedy.

In his treatment of the peace process, Billy Hutchinson gives much praise to the late  Irish American businessman, Bill Flynn, for his support for Loyalists on their journey. 

On the other hand, he is dismissive of Ian Paisley, quoting his late father as saying that Paisley “would fight to the last drop of everyone else’s blood”. 

Billy is self consciously a socialist in his political opinions, although this seems to signify as much a badge of identity as it does a precise political programme. 

He may not have won a large number of votes in recent elections, but Hutchinson represents a strand of Unionism that is open to change. 

The aftermath of Brexit will increase the importance of  understanding  the thinking of  people like him.  

While he acknowledges the help of Dr Mulvenna in preparing this autobiography, the text is very much his own, and will be of interest to future historians. So it is unfortunate that the book contains no index.

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