Northern Ireland news

UK chief Brexit negotiator told `next agreement you honour will be your first'

UK's chief Brexit negotiator, Lord David Frost wrapped himself sartorially in the Union flag, with a blue suit, white shirt and tie with a repeated design woven in red that resembled the hearts pouring from Pepe Le Peu after spotting his latest unrequited amour. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA Wire

ANYONE tuning in to Assembly TV yesterday hoping that the latest interrogation of an architect of the Northern Ireland Protocol would be a 2021 Frost/Nixon-style event must have been sorely disappointed.

While Baron Frost - a lifelong diplomat - does share the urbane unflappability of his namesake (the late inquisitor David Frost), it is not a quality that makes for incendiary box-office in an interviewee.

On the upside it was 46 minutes into the hour-long session before anyone mentioned sausages.

His appearance comes a mere 11 days after the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic appeared before the Executive Committee on a charm offensive to sell the benefits of the protocol to Northern Ireland.

On that occasion the natural élan of the European Commission vice president was bolstered by the fact that he thinks the protocol is a nifty trade framework which he is only too happy to stand over.

Awkwardly for the baron, this is not a position he is familiar with and instead he had to begin his evidence session with an intricate explanation of how "nobody thinks it [the deal he negotiated on their behalf] is working perfectly" but the reasons for that have nothing to do with him.

Appearing in person in the Senate Chamber at Parliament Buildings meant he was denied the patriotic backdrop of flags Mr Sefcovic enjoyed during his contribution via videolink.

Instead, the baron wrapped himself sartorially in the Union flag, with a blue suit, white shirt and tie with a repeated design woven in red that resembled the hearts pouring from Pepe Le Peu after spotting his latest unrequited amour.

"In practice," he told committee members, the protocol is "privileging one part of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement over the other. There has been a shift in Northern Ireland's place in the union."

Sinn Féin former MEP Martina Anderson had to wait her turn, but when it came her take-down was ruthlessly executed.

"You were Britain's chief negotiator for Brexit," she reminded him sweetly.

"Your eyes were open and your fingerprints are on every page of the protocol... You weren't asleep at the wheel. You knew that there were going to be trade adjustments - even the DUP knew there were going to be trade adjustments."

The baron agreed smoothly: "You're absolutely right, I was the trade negotiator in 2019 and 2020", but maintained "we knew the protocol was unusual in its construct" and insisted it was always planned "as a balance".

"You have to read all of the provisions together. You can't take one in isolation. It's not reasonable to read it as a document which simply requires an EU external border to be established and that's what's happening."

Ms Anderson disagreed.

"The reason it's not working out is because you have not honoured it. We believe that the next agreement you honour will be your first."

She drew his attention to recent data showing "only six per cent of people polled in the north trust in the British government. Only six per cent believe the British government".

"People do not trust you, they do not believe you, they want to see the protocol implemented in full."

The baron conceded that poll "is a salutary one", but insisted others show "a 50/50" split and "the protocol depended on a broader level of consent if it's to work".

Elsewhere, unionist members took turns to take exception to SDLP chair Colin McGrath's characterisation of "doomers" who could see no benefits to the protocol.

Ms Anderson's DUP former MEP colleague Baroness Dodds said he could call them "whatever he wants" but said it was a democratically dubious arrangement that "no unionists" support.

"Other duties" had required the Upper Bann member to beam in from what was presumably Casa Dodds, to deliver a stern lecture to the baron in front of a wall of books.

Among the tantalising glimpse into the household's night time reading were All Out War, The Third Reich at War and Carson, the latter presumably an autobiography of everyone's favourite Belfast comedian.

Party colleague Christopher Stalford said unionists "will not be demonised as doomsters and gloomsters" as he insisted the protocol is "a constitutional outrage" and "Michael Gove negotiated a dog's breakfast of a deal and you've been left to clean it up".

Sinn Féin's Pat Sheehan pointed out "a protest called several weeks ago in relation to the Irish Sea border... (had) more press photographers than protestors", arguing suggestions of widespread opposition and unrest are "myths".

The baron told members "I haven't met a member of a business community or leader... who has said this is absolutely problem-free or there are not difficulties with this".

One couldn't help wondering if this was the same business community who Mr Sefcovic reported last week was excited at the possibilities which the protocol had opened up.

Maybe Frank's right - it really is the way we tell them.

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