Sam Ryder rocked Eurovision but can Boris Johnson improve Northern Ireland Protocol? - Brian Monteith
Yes, I know, but it’s true. Our entry, Sam Ryder, and his song, Spaceman, won the international jury vote by 283 to Sweden’s 258. With the popular vote added we were blown away by Ukraine, but we voted for them ourselves and cheered them on.
Gaining more points in a few hours than we have had in total from 2010, UK viewers basked in receiving a 12-point maximum from Belgium, Germany and France. Our jury gave Ukraine 12 points, and theirs gave ours 12 points – all blind (or deaf) to each other’s actions.
Over the last few decades, if not longer, there has been suspicion across the UK that the Eurovision Song Contest – a bizarre recipe of surreal candyfloss, ladlefuls of cheesy kitsch and a dollop of culture wars – has become a pointless self-parody mostly bereft of any musical originality beyond advertising jingles due to national jury voting being hugely political.
Well, if it was ever true that the Eurovision Song Contest is a barometer for European political acceptability – or even popularity – then Royaume-Uni’s performance suggests solidarity is possible “despite Brexit” – or maybe even because of it. Or maybe ours was just a good song beaten by a better one?
This all might seem pointless flimflam but it provides context for what is likely to erupt this week when the Prime Minister goes to Belfast to discusses how to improve the NI Protocol and restart Stormont.
Fresh from bolstering support for Ukraine and visiting Sweden and Finland, where the Prime Minister pledged British support in the event of any attempt by Russia to use force to bully those Norden states, Johnson is now hoping to explain a position just as counterintuitive and complex as the motives of Eurovision juries.
Strip away all the theatrical smoke and posturing and he is not seeking to abolish the Northern Irish Protocol but rather, use its legal provisions to improve it. He and Lord Frost claimed they had agreed a super deal that deserved backing because for all its faults it had procedures allowing practical difficulties to be repaired. There is no contradiction in them believing they had, in their opinion (not mine), negotiated a good deal and then seeking to make it work better when evidence challenges their judgement or assumptions. The Protocol provides such pragmatic flexibility to both the EU and UK.
It appears forgotten the Protocol, that seeks to provide EU customs and single market regulations in Northern Ireland and thus denies it full rights as part of the United Kingdom, was only ever meant to be temporary. It has in-built processes and a timeline to seek cross-community support for its abolition or continuation through regular votes at Stormont and contains in its 16th Article a procedure to introduce targeted temporary safeguard measures if the application of the Protocol leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”, or to “diversion of trade”. Such measures do not suspend the whole Protocol.
Whatever the UK or EU thought in 2019 when the Protocol was conceived there can be no doubt it has led to those listed difficulties and is resulting in a diversion of trade.
Scottish seed potatoes cannot be sold to Northern Irish farmers; British trees cannot be planted to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee; Northern Irish cattle taken to British mainland shows cannot return without six months of expensive quarantine; Northern Ireland fishing boats become foreign the moment they leave their harbour and cannot land their legitimate catch in their own ports without expensive bureaucracy as if they were alien. The same fish can be landed without hassle at Campbeltown or Fleetwood by those same boats – or caught and landed by Irish boats in the Republic’s ports. This presents an existential risk to the seafood processing industry of Northern Ireland.
These are just some of the difficulties that have arisen and in some (but not all) cases are being alleviated by the UK applying a unilateral “grace period” of relaxed application of Protocol rules. Were the full force of the Protocol to be applied, as the EU wishes to see, then the economic impact would be significantly greater and the Northern Irish public would quickly feel the economic and societal distress. The denial of this reality by the EU, Ireland or their proxies is simply delusional – or mendacious.
In the recent Stormont elections Unionist parties maintained their superior number and percentage vote share; Sinn Féin became the largest party without increasing their number only because the DUP lost votes to Traditional Unionist Voice. All Unionist parties stood on a platform of rejecting the Protocol, with the DUP committing to not forming an administration in Stormont if the Protocol remained unaltered. They are now honouring the commitment they were elected on.
After three years of Sinn Féin refusing to form an administration in Stormont, karma has come to haunt them when they dearly want to adorn their leader with the title of First Minister. Johnson then, in trying to make the Protocol workable for all parties is, with huge irony, seeking to make Sinn Féin’s claim to be advocates of democracy realisable in practice. They should back reforming the Protocol.
Neither the intransigent EU nor the bellicose Sinn Féin want people to notice the UK’s willingness to negotiate a resolution only to then be ignored. Now good European Johnson prepares to play his own tune to make the EU parley, all while livelihoods and lives are at stake. By comparison Eurovision looks ordinary to the point of being boring.
Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and is editor of ThinkScotland.org
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