When I wrote about the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB) on Tuesday, I raised the question of what might happen if Sinn Féin refused to enter the power sharing executive, for the opposite reason to that of the DUP. That is to say, while the DUP are at present refusing to take their place at Stormont unless the NIPB is enacted into British law, what if Sinn Féin then announced they would refuse if it was?
I didn’t know at the time this very question would be asked (very gingerly) at the session of the Northern Ireland affairs select committee on Wednesday by its chair Simon Hoare, MP for South Devon. The question was put to Alan Boyle, a barrister at Essex Court Chambers and emeritus professor of public international law at Edinburgh university
Stormont and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill
Hoare had earlier pointed out that, “Any party can, if it’s not getting its own way or doesn’t like a particular policy or issue … can effectively … throw their toys out of the pram and walk away and say we’re not going to come back in unless or until we get what we want”.
A few minutes later, he asked what would happen if Sinn Féin copied the DUP and this exchange took place:
The answer, according to Professor Boyle, is that there is no answer, except to hope Sinn Féin (its name means ‘we ourselves’ or ‘ourselves’), a party which used to regard the Westminster government as an occupying power in Ireland and whose central objective is to unite the island, doesn’t make the threat.
Perhaps they will not, but if they were to do so, there must be an answer and it surely must include looking again at Theresa May’s deal in which the whole of the UK remains in the single market and the customs union until such time as frictionless, invisible borders are invented.
Hoare was at pains to point out that Sinn Féin have said nothing on the subject so we don’t know what their intentions are. But I would be surprised if they haven’t thought about it.
The UK government itself places huge emphasis on getting the Stormont executive up and running, so much so that it is prepared to break international law to do so. Nothing is more important. And there is no doubt the UK is proposing to breach an international treaty it freely entered into, because the government’s proposed defence of ‘necessity’ is based on it being an excuse for doing so. The bar has been set as high as it could be set.
If both Sinn Féin and the DUP, on opposite sides of a single binary issue, refused to form a devolved administration to govern Northern Ireland, the UK government cannot then dismiss that issue as trivial and forget about it.
Is Brexit now in the hands of Sinn Féin?
I venture to suggest that if Sinn Féin did indeed make the threat, and no other possible solution to the Northern Ireland trilemma was available, May’s deal could be re-opened for debate – in the UK at least. Don’t forget, this was the only other possible option the British government was able to arrive at after two years of internal wrangling. Parliament rejected it at the time, May was deposed, Johnson came to office and forced his ‘over ready’ deal through the House.
That is now running into serious difficulty over the protocol.
Given everything we now know about trade outside the EU single market and the customs union and the gradual but marked atrophying of support among voters both in Northern Ireland and the UK more widely for Brexit (see the Yorkshire Bylines Davis Downside Dossier for examples), there would perhaps follow calls from some quarters to reverse Brexit altogether.
I say this because I have argued that it is inconceivable for an economy the size of the UK to have its market regulated for an indefinite period – perhaps even permanently – by a separate body over which it has little or no influence.
The whole future course of Brexit may be in the hands of Sinn Féin.