North used as ‘tactical consideration' in bigger game, says former civil servant Andrew McCormick
A former leading civil servant has said he is in “no doubt that UK government ministers and officials must have understood fully the implications of the deal they did” on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Andrew McCormick also said the British administration used issues around the north as “tactical considerations in the bigger game”.
Dr McCormick, who for five years was Stormont’s most senior official involved in the Brexit process, was speaking to the Brexit Witness Archive, run by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank.
In the interview, Dr McCormick gave insights into his role in Brexit negotiations and the British government’s handling of the protocol, during the Theresa May and Boris Johnson administrations.
In particular, he suggests there were methods behind Mrs May’s actions during negotiations in a bid to achieve the softest possible Brexit for the entire UK and Northern Ireland was a means to achieve that end.
Among the issued he discussed was the Joint Report, a key negotiating document referring to Northern Ireland keeping many EU laws. “I think a key question in this context is: what was the intent of the May administration at that time,” he said.
“The Joint Report has an important ambiguity, and my understanding is that was conscious and deliberate.
The ambiguity is around the backstop, and whether it was to be Northern Ireland specific or... a UK-wide backstop. “I have come to the impression that the May administration were relatively comfortable with regulatory alignment, despite the rhetoric... there is also the possibility that the May administration saw the Northern Ireland issue... as helpful towards securing a highly aligned outcome for the UK as a whole.”
He added: “They knew what they were doing, and I find it hard to rationalise other than that the May team were ultimately looking for an outcome that was a soft Brexit.” Dr McCormick also highlighted how unworkable aspects of the protocol were for businesses, adding: “I am in no doubt that UK government ministers and officials must have understood fully the implications of the deal they did on the protocol.”
The former civil servant also said that he believes that back in 2019, the UK government did not want to discuss the protocol’s implications “not because their expectations were wrong, but because they actually did understand it, but had some reason not to really get down to the detail... at a much earlier stage”.
He also spoke about how he had to drop a paper he had been encouraged to write by the UK government about having green and red channels at Northern Ireland ports.
The green was for goods only going to Northern Ireland and red going on to the Republic.
Dr McCormick said he shared the information with the DUP and Sinn Féin in the absence of an executive at the time, but several days later he received a call from London to say “stop, spike it; kill the whole thing”.
He said the document had been leaked to the media “as far as I know from Sinn Féin” but by then the idea of such a solution “was actually unhelpful to the UK negotiators, who were clearly moving towards the possibility of the UK-wide backstop… I was out of line with the zeitgeist”.