According to Lord Palmerston only three people really understood the Schleswig Holstein question ‘One was dead, one was mad and himself, but he had forgotten it’. There is a real danger with the departure of Lord Frost and Boris Johnson that nobody will remember our current equivalent: The Northern Ireland protocol. None of the leadership candidates seem keen to talk about it yet it remains an inconvenient truth that demonstrates how risk can be in plain sight yet also denied.
The UK government intention to scrap the NI protocol seems odd to the US and Europe alike but is an obsession of the Tory party, despite the opprobrium it will bring. None of the leadership candidates have signalled any change of heart about reneging on an international treaty to which Britain was a vital signatory two years ago. Is it perhaps because the Unionists remind the party that the name is actually the Conservative and Unionist party?
Is it perhaps the fact the Northern Ireland is unique in remaining subject to EU law after Brexit that the Tories find so unpalatable? The argument for scrapping the border in the Irish Sea is that it is a hindrance to free trade, yet why then has Northern Ireland performed so much better than any part of Great Britain over the past two years? Could it be that being part of the EU is quite the opposite of a hindrance but an economic advantage; does the UK government fear that without a hard border it might lose Ulster to a united Ireland accountable to Dublin not Westminster?
It has been known since 1997 that a hard border would jeopardise the Good Friday agreement, so the maritime border was a compromise to preserve peace. Common sense tells us this should be paramount in any trade and border solution, yet if the protocol is scrapped and Northern Ireland brought firmly under the control of Westminster, then a land border becomes once again inevitable so this is why the US makes it a red line for any future trade deals; the peace deal created by Clinton and Blair ended the troubles.
The EU will not fight to keep control of Northern Ireland but it will point to the futility of solving a problem of sovereignty buy creating a much greater problem of civil unrest. Remember than in the referendum of 2016 the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, and the economic performance of the past two years suggests they were not wrong; Westminster decided to pull the UK out of the EU and Stormont had no say in the matter.
Whoever the Tory party select as a leader, the problem of a fixed border with the EU will not go away. It is a kind of Gordian Knot, but the protocol remains an inconvenient truth of risk denial.