Last week saw the first stage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill passing through Westminster. An innocuous enough sounding bill, perhaps, but one which beneath the bonnet represents nothing less than the UK Government trying to unpick their own Brexit deal which they signed up to a few short months ago.
The Protocol keeps Northern Ireland within the European Single Market post-Brexit and prevents the need for customs and regulatory border checks on the island of Ireland. That avoidance of a border is something which a lot of people, not least those who were involved in the peace process in the late 1990s and who can remember all that went before it, unsurprisingly regard as being quite important.
There is much rhetoric from the present UK Government about a ‘precious union’. Nevertheless, it’s still hard for me to understand – even as a supporter of Scottish Independence with a pretty low opinion of the present UK Government – just how any unionist government could have contrived to sunder that union with a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as part of their ‘oven ready’ Brexit deal.
I understand and empathise with some of the concerns of people in Northern Ireland over how aspects of the protocol are working or, as they might view it, not working. However, for me, this doesn’t only affect Northern Ireland. In Scotland, too, are subject to a withdrawal agreement that does not work for us, or I would argue any other part of the UK.
Rather than address this in a way which might help to minimise or even once again eliminate trade barriers, the government has instead unleashed a Bill on the Protocol which enables Ministers to unilaterally ‘switch off’ those parts of the Protocol that they wish to disapply, even although the Protocol in all of its parts forms part of an international treaty.
It really shouldn’t need to be said, but it is absolutely vital that Governments, including our own, should respect the international obligations that they enter into. We cannot criticise states like Russia and China for breaking the rules-based international order, yet somehow excuse the UK when it breaches international law itself. It allows rogue states around the world an opportunity to accuse us of hypocrisy, while undermining our standing with our allies who are left doubting whether they can rely on us to keep to an agreement.
Even former Prime Minister Theresa May was moved to speak against the Bill when she said the Bill, “is not in my view legal in international law, it will not achieve its aims and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.”
Strong stuff, and I invite readers to compare and contrast that analysis to the announcement the following day from the First Minister who was at great pains to point out that a future independence referendum must and will be held legally.
Whatever people might think on independence and I accept that views differ, no-one can argue that the Scottish Government is failing to proceed with caution and taking great care to act lawfully. That may seem a strange thing to say as we expect all our elected officials to do just that in the execution of their duties. But then, these are strange times where one of Scotland’s governments feels that the rule of law is something for other people rather than for them.