John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas


 UK critics of the Protocol, including unionists, fail to explore why the Protocol must contain provisions that EU rules on goods must apply to NI, and be interpreted there in the same way as in the 27 EU states.

 It has been this unwillingness to try to understand the EU reasoning that has made the negotiation so difficult. The first principle of a good negotiation to understand your interlocutors genuine needs. I do not feel the Protocol critics are doing this sufficiently.

This unwillingness to try to understand the reasoning behind the Protocol testifies to the deep lack of seriousness at the top of British politics.

 Expertise is disdained. Verbal dexterity and witty put downs are preferred to truth telling and serious analysis. The former are the skills that win votes in student debates in Oxford University, but they are useless when it comes to the hard slog of governing a country and negotiating with other countries


This lack of seriousness explains why Boris Johnson agreed to the Protocol, won an election on the basis that it was “getting Brexit done, and now wants to pull out of it.

There is  also a complete mismatch between the negotiating styles of the UK government and  of the European Commission.

 The UK approach is one that emphasises drama, and performance for an external audience. The Commission’s approach is low key and legalistic and is rooted in the texts of EU treaties and laws, documents which the UK political negotiators hardly take the trouble to read (as we have seen with the Protocol)

The essence of the Single Market is that it sets up a single set of standards for goods and foods, standards which are uniformly applied and interpreted consistently across the EU. That makes trade simpler and protects consumers equally, where ever the make their purchases in the EU

NI is important, but so too are the 27 EU states and their Treaty commitments to one another. 

For example, a UK proposal that exempted NI from any of the EU rules, listed in the Protocol ,would create doubt as to the wisdom of investing in an EU oriented business in NI. NI sourced goods could then no longer be relied upon as fully meeting EU standards . That would dilute the unity of the Single Market.  The Commission is not going to allow this to happen.

 When a Competence review, to see if the balance of responsibilities between the UK and the EU was right, was undertaken by the UK Coalition from 2012 to 2014 before the 2016 Referendum, the then NI Executive said access to the Single Market was “vital” to NI.

The UK took part in the drafting of all the EU rules listed in the Protocol which will apply in NI under it, and understood at the time that they were necessary to protect the integrity of the Single Market. Chapter 3 of the UK’s own Competence Review explained why this was needed. Why does the UK not understand in 2022 what it understood in 2012?

The answer is that the present UK government thinks the 2016 Referendum result changes everything.

 That may be so for the UK, but it changes nothing  or the EU and its 27 members states. The requirements for maintaining the Single Market among the 27 EU members have not changed. These rules are there to protect the EU Single Market and they  will not be changed Boris Johnson or for Jeffrey Donaldson, who freely chose to leave the EU.

The suggestion, by the UK, that ECJ jurisdiction would not apply to interpreting the EU rules as applied in NI  is  dangerous.  It could be seen as subversive of the entire Single Market. It would institutionalise double standards inside the EU Single Market, and  potentially reverse 50 years of European integration.

ECJ judgements created the Single market, almost as much as did EU Treaties and legislation.

The idea that there might be two versions of EU law, a version applied in the EU on the basis of ECJ jurisprudence, and another NI version, based on UK Court interpretations, could not endure.

 It would be a formula for perpetual and wasteful conflict. 

The same consideration applies to the idea that EU state aid rules would not apply in NI while NI was supposed to have unfettered access for goods to the Single Market. It would create a platform for unfair competition which is the antithesis of the EU Single Market.

We should remember also that proposing changes to the Customs Code of the EU is an exclusive Commission competence, rather than one for the Member states. If it has been otherwise, there would never have been a Single Market. The UK proposals on flexibility directly attack on this exclusive competence of the Commission. I worked in the Commission for five years and I know the Commission will not give this up  to some joint EU/UK Committee..

 Because the EU is a voluntary Union of 27 states, it is an inherently fragile construction, bound together by rules that are freely accepted by 27 very different countries.  

  The big weakness of the European  Commission in the present impasse is that it is not good at explaining why its rules are as they are. The Commission  is good at details,  but not good at communicating basic concepts and the logic of the EU position in plain language.

 It  is allowing the UK to make all the running publicity wise. It is time to change this.


 I was asked to speak at a Seminar in St Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth Co Kildare.

The Seminar considered plans to develop the Seminary for the education of future Catholic priests for Ireland, and for the education of lay people who will play an increasing role in the Catholic life, as the number of priests declines.


It is a great honour to be invited to speak at this important event.

 I have lived much of my life in sight of the magnificent spire that is the centre piece of the college. 

My father told me he had met a man who sat on the cross which is at the very top of the steeple. He enquired how the man had managed this miraculous feat.  The man paused for dramatic effect and then revealed that he had been present when the steeple was being built and the cross was lying on the ground, waiting to be erected. So he sat down on it, so that he would have this tall story to tell for the rest of his life!

Any time I looked at the steeple I thought of my father’s story, but I have to admit I did not give a lot of thought to what was going on in the shadow of this magnificent steeple within the walls of the college.

Professor Michael Mullaney and Fr Tom Surlis will give you you an outline of their plans for the college. I hope the discussion today among people of many diverse backgrounds and generations can enrich the plans Michael and Tom have.

I would like to say why the work here is so important.

 We need priests and religious.

 We also need an educated Catholic laity capable of spreading the message of Faith confidently.


First let me say something about the core task of this seminary….the formation of priests.

What did Vatican II say  in 1965 about the role of priests?

It said their “primary duty is the proclamation of the gospel of God to all”

 to “go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature”

 in the words of St Mark’s Gospel.

 But Vatican II, back in 1965, referred to Catholics who

“understand or believe little of what they practice”

 and added that the preaching of the word is needed for the

“very administration of the sacraments”.

If that was an uphill task in 1965, it is even more so today. Families going through the motions rather than trying  to understand what Baptism and First Holy Communion for their children are really about.

Vatican II put the Eucharist at the centre of everything the Church does. It said

“The Eucharistic Action is the very heartbeat of the congregation of the faithful, over which the priest presides”.

The mystery of the Eucharist is central to everything, and that is what makes to education of priests so important, because without priests there can be no Mass.

 “Priests fulfil their chief duty in the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice”

is how Vatican II put it.


Vatican II went on

“The office of the pastor is not confined to the care of the faithful as individuals, but is also properly extended to the formation of a genuine Christian Community”.

I think Irish priests do the first of those tasks very well. But, unlike churches in the US,  I fear they do the latter job, the formation of genuine Christian communities in their parishes,  less well. Our churches are not even physically designed to encourage people to meet easily after Mass, and make to contacts that help form a “genuine Christian Community”, based and centred on the Eucharist as Vatican II said it wanted. This is an essential first step towards the involvement of lay people in the work of the church. Practising Catholics are a minority in Ireland, and they need to support one another .


Vatican II said, back in 1965, that priests should

“confidently entrust to the laity duties in the service of the church, allowing them freedom and room for action”.

This will be put to the test, 57 years later,  by Irish participation in Synod.

 How many sermons have been preached in Irish parishes, explaining what the Synod is about, explaining its opportunities and , of course its limitations?

 I do not feel that job has really been done adequately in every parish, although I am sure it has been done very well in some.

Moving on from the formation of priests, let me say something about the formation of lay people who will play an increasing role in the Church.

As I see it, this college can play a vital part in the moral, spiritual and intellectual life of the Irish people.


 It can ask questions that go beyond the temporal and material concerns that occupy most of our waking hours in modern Ireland. It can help people to be comfortable considering questions like…

What happens when we die? Is this life all there is?

Can we communicate with God? Does He hear us?

What constitutes a good life? Does it have meaning beyond doing no harm, and causing as little pain as possible to others and to ourselves?

What are the obligations we have to other human beings, to human lives born and soon the be born?

How do we best cope with suffering and setbacks in our lives? How do we keep them in proportion in our minds?

Not everyone will answer some of these questions in the same way. Many will never even ask themselves these questions at all.

 That type of agnosticism is a form of laziness.   It is not to be confused with the residue of doubt that we all have after we have considered these questions, questions to which there is no simple empirical answer.

But if, as a society, we avoid questions like these, we are, in a sense, not living our lives to the full.

This college will enable people, lay as well as religious, to become comfortable discussing profound questions, thus help them to live their lives to the full,  in all its complications.

There is no doubt Ireland is a very different country now, to the one into which I was born in 1947.  

There is immensely more material wealth now, than then. There is less deference now, than then. There is less of an obsession with respectability, an obsession which was the cause of many abuses in which society implicated the church and vice versa.

We have lived through rapid change…change in what people regard as more, or less,  important, in other words a change in values.

 Laity, and priests, can respond to this change either by taking refuge in a past that never really existed, or, alternatively, by just chugging along optimistically ignoring unpalatable trends, and hoping that it will all  turn out right in the end.

 The Pope, in a recent address to priests, took a very different view.  He said we should instead “cast out into the deep” in the words of St Luke’s gospel, trusting in our God given discernment to find the right path.

 Helping a new generation of Irish people, lay and religious, to find the right path, to learn from mistakes, and  to correct course when necessary, will be the task this College will undertake, through the priests and laity it educates.


In twenty first century Ireland, there is a much stronger emphasis than before, on the rights of each individual. These rights are growing in range and scope, and are being litigated through politics and the courts. But the emphasis is heavily on rights, and on the individuals who is to enjoy those rights, rather than on the community as a whole, on shared responsibilities, or on the common good.

Social media has also facilitated the pursuit of celebrity, a desire for personal recognition.  This sometimes accompanied by a desire not to be judged oneself, but to be free to judge others, harshly, hastily, and anonymously.

 “Taking offence” can become a weapon in our culture wars. Feelings can be elevated, above thought, and above careful objective reflection.

 The banal truth is that for every right, there must always be a concomitant responsibility.

 On whose shoulders does the responsibility rest? On the state and the taxpayer, on the family, on the local community or on the courts?

 Finding a formula to answer such questions was one of the goals of Catholic Social Thinking, which will no doubt be part of the academic activity in this college in the years ahead.

 The best antidote to all these problems is a well developed values system, by this I mean, a way of evaluating what is more important, and what is less important ( without dismissing anything as unimportant!).

 That requires judgement, and we must not be afraid to judge.

It is important to remember that Catholic Social thinking is Social. It is about society, rather than just about the individual, and not just about the individual’s desire for self esteem and recognition.

 Our church has always emphasised the importance of community, community among believers and community with wider society.

 The fact that Ireland has a strong spirit of organised volunteerism still today is due, in no small measure, to the heritage of voluntary organisations formed by, and around, the  Catholic church.

That heritage must be preserved and enhanced. I have no doubt Maynooth, through its programmes of part and full time education for lay people will contribute greatly to this.

 The College will be continuing, as I said before, with its vital core responsibility of educating the priests and religious of the future.  As I have said, It will be preparing priests to do their work in a very different world to the one that priests ordained in the 1960’s faced.

 There will be radically fewer priests, fewer people going to Mass, and a much more crowded and unsympathetic communications space through which the church can communicate its message. As far as Catholicism is concerned, Ireland has become a mission territory.


Where in the past the priest could do much of the work, in the future, he will have to work increasingly through lay people (mostly unpaid).

 The skill set of a priest of the 2030’s will centre on motivating others to do the work, rather than doing it all himself.

 Motivating and sustaining volunteers is a skilled and demanding job, on which the priests and religious of the future must become expert practitioners.

 The priest of the future will have to share power, while at the same time ensuring that the essential doctrines of the church are accurately conveyed.

 Indeed education in the doctrines of the church will become more and more important . This is because we live in world in which people of faith want to be listened to, but also crave clear answers.  There is a real tension between the desire to be heard, and the desire to be led.

 And it is a tension that will be expressed in the Synod.

Faith and reason must sit together in the Synod.

 We may have become used in the past to having clear answers provided for us by church teaching.

 For some of us, controversy between leading church figures is troubling, even upsetting. We want a clear line we can follow, not a cacophony. That is a feature of politics too, and the church can learn from politics. Parties with too many competing messages do not do well in elections.

 And yet we know, from daily life as well as from Scripture, that some situations are hard to fit within a single line of thinking.

We need an educated and tolerant laity, educated and tolerant priests, who are willing, as the Pope said, to “cast out into the deep” and have confidence in themselves.


I wish to add my voice to the tributes to life and service of Alan Gillis who died on Friday.

Alan was an outstandingly effective President of the Irish Farmers Association(IFA). His calm demeanour, and his experience working outside farming, enabled him to win understanding for the farmer’s case from a wider non farming audience that would have been achievable through previously methods.

He did not just speak to farmers, he spoke FOR farmers to the whole community. 

I was delighted that, at the end of his IFA Presidential term , Alan was willing to put his name forward as a Fine Gael candidate for  the 1994 European Parliament elections and was successful.

It was a pleasure to canvass for Alan Gillis. He always seemed cheerful and positive.  He had a genuine interest in everyone he met on the canvass.

In the Parliament, he served on the Agricultural Committee where he was able to put his professional knowledge to goodeffect on behalf of the EU and Ireland. 

In his personal life, he was a truly ecumenical Christian, whose service represented his deeply held values. He will be missed.

Michael O Kennedy RIP

I wish to pay tribute to the live of political service of Michael O Kennedy.
Legally trained and accomplished in several European languages, he represented Ireland with
distinction and courtesy is many international fora. He was personally kind in his dealings with other
politicians. My wife, Finola joins me in expressing heartfelt sympathy with his widow Breda and all
Michaels family.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine…an attempt to end the independence of a sovereign country by force…would, if successful, set a precedent that should frighten smaller nations across the globe.

 It is an attack on the system on international law that has given us 80 years of relative peace in Europe, and, as a side benefit, allowed international trade to develop, thereby raising living standards everywhere.

The UN Charter of 1946 established the principles of the inviolability of borders, of respect for the territorial integrity of states and the prohibition of the use of force.

  When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1991, its borders were formally guaranteed by Russia, the US and the UK. Now one of those guarantors is deliberately breaching those borders (for a second time)

The Helsinki Conference (1975) reaffirmed the respect of borders in Europe, and gave birth to the OSCE, of which Russia is a member. Its Charter confirms the above-mentioned UN principles.

 The Helsinki Final Act goes on to say

“They (states) also have the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be party or not to bilateral or multilateral treaties, including the right to be party or not to treaties of alliance”

The Russian pre text for war, to stop Ukraine joining NATO and the EU, is a direct contradiction of this Helsinki principle.

Many, including President Putin, hoped the war would be a short one. Increasingly it is looking like becoming a long war of attrition, much like World War One, where most of the deaths are caused by missiles and shells falling for the sky. This sort of war can grind on for months and even years, until all is ruined.

The devastation will be felt far from Ukraine.

 Ukraine and Russia between them grow 25% of the wheat traded in the world. 12% of all the calories consumed in the entire world derive from crops grown in Russia and Ukraine.

It is impossible to sow and harvest crops on a battlefield. Indeed both belligerent nations are likely to keep any crops they can grow, for the use of their own beleaguered people.

The effect of this on bread prices will be dramatic. 75% of all the wheat consumed in Turkey, and 72% of that consumed in Egypt, comes from Russia or Ukraine.  Israel and Tunisia are also dependent for half their  supplies from the same sources. We can expect bread riots and renewed political instability in these countries.

The effect of the war will be to increase social tensions everywhere. The higher fuel and food prices that are flowing directly from the war will affect poorer families much more than better off ones because these items are a bigger share of the weekly budget in poorer families. They will also hit rural households much harder, because they have to rely on a private car to obtain the necessities of life.

The cost of replacement motor cars will rise because of shortages of minerals like aluminium, titanium, palladium and nickel, of which Russia is a major supplier. This will hit Germany’s car industry hard. Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland will be disproportionately  hit by the loss of Russian markets for their exports.

China’s Belt and Road initiative, creating a land based route for Chinese exports to Western Europe, is being radically disrupted by a war which cuts right across China’s road westwards, and  whose effects are being felt all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

 Continuance of this war is not in China’s interests.

The longer the war goes on, the more the sanctions on Russia will begin to sap its war making capacity. Supplies of missiles and shells will become progressively harder to pay for. Those supplying weaponry to Ukraine have deeper pockets. This is the significance of Russia’s overtures to China.

These overtures are an opportunity. China has an incentive to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. So has Turkey. Timing will be crucial.

 But the ingredients of such a deal, where there is no trust at all between the parties, are much harder to describe.

 Ukraine could  perhaps find a formula to give up Crimea, but  it can hardly concede an inch in Eastern Ukraine. Russian language rights in Ukraine could be guaranteed, but what has Russia to offer in return?  Perhaps reparations for the physical damage they have done to Ukraine’s infrastructure. Ukraine could join the EU, but not NATO, with Russia’s encouragement (which would be a big U turn for Russia).

None of these compromises are palatable , but they are preferable to a war of attrition which could go on for years, until all the participants are exhausted, or dead.


Ireland’s independence, as a small and militarily weak state, depends more than most, on respect by other, more powerful states, of the basic tenets on international law.

By annexing Crimea and by participating in the challenge of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has already, since 2014, violated

  • the fundamental texts of the United Nations,
  • the statutes of the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member,
  • at least two regional treaties organizing peace in Europe and
  • two bilateral treaties signed with Ukraine, as well as, in passing, the constitutions of Ukraine and of Crimea.

Now, in launching a full scale invasion of Ukraine from three sides, Russia is compounding and magnifying its original crime against international law.

 It has gone further than anything the Soviet Union did as far as aggressive actions are concerned.

It is worth quoting some of the international law texts that cover this case.

 Article 2 §4 of the UN Charter establishes the principles of the inviolability of borders, respect for the territorial integrity of states and the prohibition of the use of force.

The Helsinki Conference (1 August 1975) established the respect of borders in Europe and gave birth to the OSCE, of which Russia is a member. Its Charter confirms the above-mentioned principles.

 It goes on to say

“They (states) also have the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be party or not to bilateral or multilateral treaties, including the right to be party or not to treaties of alliance”

The Helsinki Final Act, of which Russia is a signatory, continues

“No consideration may be invoked to serve as a justification for the threat or use of force in violation of this principle” and:

 “they (the States) shall refrain from any manifestation of force intended to make another participating State renounce the full exercise of its sovereign rights”

 “ They will also refrain from any demand or act of control over all or part of the territory of another participating State”

 “ Similarly, the participating States will each refrain from making the territory of any of them the object of military occupation or other measures involving the direct or indirect use of force contrary to international law, or the object of acquisition by means of such measures or the threat of such measures. No such occupation or acquisition shall be recognized as lawful.”

Russia is breaking all these international laws.

Furthermore, the friendship agreement signed between Russia and Ukraine on May 31, 1997 specifically emphasized the respect of borders.

 Vital interests are  now at stake in the war in Ukraine, as they were when Iraq invaded Kuwait.


European leaders are discussing two topics this week……Ukraine and Africa.

The current situation in and around Ukraine may represent the biggest short term threat to the peace and prosperity of Europe. 

But the biggest opportunity for Europe is to our south, in Africa.

 The population of Africa is set to double by 2050. Working together Europeans and Africans complement one another.

 The past behaviour of Europeans in the colonial era has left a legacy that has not yet been fully acknowledged and overcome. 

 But the focus should be on the opportunities.

A report  by the European Council on Foreign Relations highlights some of these opportunities.


 Jacob Rees Mogg has been appointed as UK  Minister for Brexit Opportunities, with a mandate from Boris Johnson  to  change 1000 regulations, now in force , which the UK adopted as an EU member.  

This mandate, if acted upon, makes a settlement of the EU/UK dispute over the Protocol  next to impossible.

The more  EU inherited  UK regulations in respect of goods, which Minister Rees Mogg changes, the more will be the frequency and intrusiveness of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

 This because, under the Protocol Minister Rees Mogg and his colleagues signed , Northern Ireland will continue to apply  EU regulations for goods, including food products.  

 Any new and different UK rules , sponsored by Minister Rees Mogg, will not apply in Northern Ireland .  This will mean even more checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland to ensure that the goods comply with the EU rules. 

 New and different UK rules for goods, will also mean more things to check at British ports facing continental Europe, and more traffic jams on the roads approaching these ports.

Of course, this applies only to goods. In the case of services, the UK can make whatever rules it likes without any impact on customs checks at ports.

But as far as goods are concerned, it is almost as if the Rees Mogg appointment is designed to sabotage any possibility of his colleague Liz Truss finding an agreement with Vice President Sefcovic on a lightening the Protocol. 

 If he does the job he has been given , Mr Rees Mogg’s real title should  perhaps be “Minister for Extra Trade Barriers”.  Of course this applies only to goods. 

A recent UK paper  on the “Benefits of Brexit” suggested that scrapping EU rules could bring £1 billion worth of benefits to the UK economy. This seems like a figure plucked out of the sky.  There is no detail of what rules might be changed, even though the UK has been preparing for the suppose benefits of Brexit for the past six years.

 Indeed separate and different  UK rules might actually increase costs, because of the duplication involved.

But there are strong suspicions that the “benefits of Brexit”  paper is  just for show, and that Rees Mogg will not actually be able to diverge much from EU standards at all, because UK businesses will not want  to lose markets in the EU.. 

In a way, his appointment is an expression of the confused expectations about Brexit within the Conservative Party……members want a bonfire of EU rules.   But they also want to be able to have their exports accepted in the countries of the EU as being compliant with the very  EU rules they have just scrapped!

 Businesses which trade internationally know the importance of regulations for both goods and services, and may not be so keen on unilateral UK regulatory changes that put the UK out of line with its neighbours to whom they want to export.

Whether it is product safety, or the transfer of cross-border data, domestic regulations and international agreements are a crucial element in making access to markets easier, or  making  them more difficult. Having different rules is a way of keeping imports out and making consumers pay more. 

Under Prime Minister Theresa May there was some openness in the UK government to aligning with EU rules, particularly in the area of goods, in order to facilitate trade and resolve issues around  Northern Ireland .

The arrival of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in July 2019 ended this openness.   His view was  that UK regulatory sovereignty is crucial, or at least must be made to appear to be so. 

Boris Johnson’s present political difficulties weaken his ability to reach compromises with the EU on the Protocol.

 His party is, in fact, a coalition between those who want more spending and those who want less spending, between those who want more protectionism and those who want less, and between those who want more regulation and those who want less. 

 Some problems have already arisen. The new UKCA conformity assessment mark to replace the EU’s CE mark, means greater internal regulatory inconsistency between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and hence more bureaucracy at Northern Ireland ports.

 The more Rees Mogg does  his job, the more will be the differences between Northern Ireland standards and those in the rest of the UK.

Trade Agreements may be an added complication.

 For example there are suggestions that Canada will challenge the UK’s ban on hormone treated beef, as part of the accession process for the UK to the  new Pacific Trade Agreement. 

If this were to happen, it would mean extra controls on beef products from Britain coming into either part of Ireland. It would also place beef exports from either part of Ireland to Britain  at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis hormone treated beef imported from Canada. 

 But would British consumers want to eat hormone treated beef?

Whether the UK actually diverges all that much from its existing EU standards or not, the fact that the UK is SAYING now  it  intends to diverge a lot , means that the EU has to maintain tight customs controls of British goods .

  That means insisting that the Protocol is respected to the full in Northern Ireland ports,  and continuing delays on British good going to continental Europe

 So the Protocol row may go on and on, until the UK finally settles on what EU rules it wants to change, and what EU  rules it intends to keep. 

Given how slow progress on making these decisions has been in the six years since Brexit , the Protocol  dispute could drag on for years.

 This does not  augur well for stability in Northern Ireland,  or for Anglo Irish relations.


Notwithstanding the positive sounds emanating from Monday’s meeting between Liz Truss and Maros Sefcovic, the talks between the European Commission and the UK government over the Protocol on Northern Ireland are probably heading to a major crisis in the next month. There has been no movement of the UK side, and immovable deadlines are approaching.

The UK agreed to the Protocol as part of their Withdrawal Treaty with the EU. The Protocol was an intrinsic part of the Treaty. The UK Parliament ratified the Treaty, including the Protocol, but now the UK government is trying to scrap it altogether, under a this pretence of “renegotiating “ it.

The fundamental problem is that the British negotiating strategy is being driven by old fashioned, populist, and simplistic notions about trade. The EU strategy, on the other hand, is driven by a legal imperative to protect the most advanced form of economic and commercial integration between sovereign nations that has ever been achieved. The clash is a clash of mind sets. The arguments of either side are based on fundamentally incompatible assumptions.

There is the added complication that the negotiations between Liz Truss and Maros Sefcovic are taking place in the midst of a political crisis in Britain, in which any compromise is liable to be used as a political weapon in a struggle to lead the Conservative Party.
Conservative Britain always pretended to see the EU as simple free trade area. But the rest of the EU members realized one could not have truly free trade, unless there were four other things

  • common rules on the quality of products
  • freedom for people and money to move from country to country,
  • common trade policies vis a vis the rest of the world, and
  • a shared set of political goals that facilitated day to day compromise.

A big segment of English opinion never accepted this latter concept of the EU. This makes it difficult for them to even to understand the necessary implications of the Protocol .

The Protocol makes Northern Ireland part of the EU Single market for goods produced in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile Britain has left the EU Single Market. Britain has no more than a bare bones trade agreement with the EU. This makes a big difference. But it is what the UK government and Parliament agreed.
Goods produced in Northern Ireland (NI) are being treated as EU goods, whereas goods produced in Britain are non EU goods.

In the case of goods made up of parts, ingredients or components coming from different countries, The parts, ingredients or components produced in Northern Ireland qualify, for rules of origin purposes, as “European”. Meanwhile parts, ingredients or components originating in Britain are of non EU origin.

This distinction can be very important in deciding whether a final product is sufficiently “European” to benefit from duty free access to the EU market. If one wants to ensure that a sufficient percentage of a final product is “European”, it makes sense to source ingredients or parts in NI rather than in another part of the UK.

Goods coming into NI will be subject to EU Customs rules and tariffs, whereas goods coming into Britain will be subject to (potentially very different) UK Customs rules and tariffs.

This gap has to be policed, if there is not to be abuse. In the Protocol the EU and the UK agreed how this gap is to be policed.
The gap will become progressively wider, if the UK seeks to exploit the freedom it won by Brexit by making new (and different) British standards to replace the old standards that it might claim had been “imposed by Brussels”.

The more the standards diverge, the more will checks be needed on goods entering the EU market through NI, to ensure that they comply with EU requirements.

Then there is the question of the European Court interpreting EU rules as they apply to NI goods circulating freely in the EU Single Market . The UK agreed to this but now is objecting to it.
For NI businesses to be free to export their products within the EU Single Market under the Protocol they have to be able to convince their competitors and customers in France and Germany that NI goods are fully compliant with EU rules. These rules are interpreted, in final analysis, by the European Court of Justice. That ensures consistency.
The rules must be interpreted in the same way for NI goods, as they are for goods produced in France or Germany. The role of the ECJ in the Protocol is the passport for NI goods into Europe, one of the biggest markets in the world.

The role of the ECJ is, of course, confined to EU rules applying to goods. It will have no general jurisdiction in NI on other matters. There the final arbiter will be the UK Supreme Court.

There is a logjam in the negotiations because the UK side keeps repeating the same talking points , pocketing EU concessions without reciprocity, and withholding cooperation with the EU authorities on access to data. It is also stalling on building installations in Belfast Port that would allow customs officials there to do their work safely and conveniently. The UK is using “grace periods” to defer indefinitely controls it agreed to. It is almost as if the UK does not want to face up to the implications of Brexit.

The UK, and some unionists, talk about using Article 16 as if this would allow the ending of checks in Belfast port. That is not legally possible. Article 16 only allows limited and temporary derogations. To use it to go beyond that would be a straightforward breach on international law.
We are facing a moment of truth.



We can best avoid conflict by ensuring that authority is exercised legitimately and constitutionally, with due regard for minorities.

For example, those pressing for an early border poll will need to reflect on whether a poll on unity, passed by 52% to 48%, might recreate conditions for conflict in the north eastern corner of this island. Precedents elsewhere suggest this is not an insignificant possibility. The possibility of such a poll taking place arises from one the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement which allows the UK Secretary of State to call such a poll id he/she thinks there is a prospect that the poll might approve unity.

But even if there was a majority for unity overall, there would be parts of Northern Ireland where the majority of residents might be strongly opposed and might reject the outcome. Policing such areas would be a major challenge, as we have seen on a smaller scale in the past.

The underlying spirit of the Good Friday Agreement is one which seeks reconciliation between people and less emphasis on territorial sovereignty. Unfortunately Brexit has brought sovereignty back to the centre of the debate.


It was hoped by many that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement would remove the risk of renewed conflict around sovereignty.

But many who complain that others are not fulfilling their obligations under the Agreement, are failing to fulfil some of their own obligations. 

For example,the Agreement recognises that

 “ the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish;”

By refusing even to use the term “Northern Ireland”, and also by refusing to take their seats in Westminster, Sinn Fein is , in effect, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of that part of the Good Friday Agreement.  Their abstention is a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Union for the time being.


 It has created a precedent that will not be forgotten.

 Sinn Fein should ask itself how it would feel, if after a border poll narrowly approving unity, unionists then decided to imitate Sinn Fein and refused to take their seats in the Dail, or even went further and attempted to set up a breakaway parliament in a unionist part of the North. 

Of course, Sinn Fein is not alone in its selectivity about the Good Friday Agreement.


The UK government is obliged by it to be impartial between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland on the constitutional question. The Agreement says that that 

“whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, (in a border poll) the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions “

With her talk about the “precious Union”, Prime Minister May was hardly being rigorously impartial between unionism and nationalism, and the same applies even more to the Johnson Government. 

One must also ask the question……….if unity was carried in a border poll, would the government in Dail Eireann be able to be impartial between unionists and nationalists in the North? 

 Given the growth in support here for Sinn Fein, and recent poll data rejecting possible compromises on issues like the flag, this is a legitimate, if not necessarily an urgent, question.

Legitimate authority is crucial for civilization.

The wars of the 1919 to 1923 period were about the legitimisation of the authority of this state. 

 Legitimacy was underpinned by Cosgrave’s handover of power in 1932.  It was confirmed by Eamon de Valera, on the losing side in the Civil War, obtaining the support of the Irish people in 1937 for a new Constitution, which endures to this day. 


This Constitution affirms that the only legitimate authority that can use  force on behalf of the Irish people is Dail Eireann. 

Article 15(6) of the Constitution is crystal clear.  It says

the right to raise and maintain military or armed forces is vested exclusively in the Oireachtas. No military or armed force, other than a military or armed force raised and maintained by the Oireachtas, shall be raised or maintained for any purpose whatsoever.

These words of our Constitution were very much in my mind when, as Taoiseach in the 1990’s, I pressed for the decommissioning of arms by paramilitaries as a condition for the legitimation of political parties associated with them. This was, for me, a matter of constitutional principle.

The current Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, recently suggested that his party no longer completely excludes the possibility of serving in government with Sinn Fein, a party associated with the Provisional IRA.


 Any TD contemplating the possibility of supporting Sinn Fein participation in government, needs to ensure that Article 15 (6) is rigorously enforceable, and actually enforced.

This is not  a trivial technicality.

An independent review, submitted to the UK Government in 2015, found that , at that time in Northern Ireland,  the Provisional IRA and its leading decision making body, the Army Council, continued to operate , “albeit in a much reduced form”, and that, while it was not a security threat, the army council continued to oversee both the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein.

Perhaps this is no longer the case seven years later?   But we will need firm evidence of that.

 I hope the Taoiseach, and the security institutions of this state, will satisfy themselves as to whether the Army Council still exists. We cannot have a party in government which is associated with an armed group, whose  very existence defies Article 15 of our Constitution. 

 This Constitution is arguably Eamon de Valera’s greatest political achievement. So Micheal Martin, as his successor as Fianna Fail Leader, should be scrupulous in ensuring that the terms of the Constitution are respected

The voters of this state should recognise the value of what we have created here on the basis of  our constitution….a state whose authority rests on  sound  and  unambiguous  democratic principles, that does not need to engage in double speak .

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