Richard North, 30/07/2021  

On 14 April of this year, the newly-formed House of Lords European Affairs Committee set up a sub-committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The sub-committee immediately decided to launch an introductory inquiry into the operation of the protocol. Part of its remit was to identify solutions to the problems it had identified in the course of its inquiry.

The sub-committee, chaired by Lord Jay of Ewelme and assisted by nine other peers of the realm, interviewed 18 witnesses and collected a galaxy of written evidence. Then, on 29 July (yesterday), it published its 93-page Introductory Report. It needn't have bothered.

Its idea of identifying solutions was to observe that, in order to ensure the proportionate application of the Protocol, the UK and the EU urgently needed to agree "practical solutions in a number of specific areas". These, it turned out, had been identified by its witnesses and in dialogue between the UK and the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee.

So basically, all it has managed to do is trot out all the same, tired talking points, such as an "enhanced Trusted Trader Scheme" that have been chewed over ever since the negotiations started. And since they have been endlessly rehearsed without the slightest sign of agreement, it is unlikely that their mere repetition is going to achieve so very much.

However, not all is lost. The sub-committee at least managed to understand that the main burden arising from the application of the Protocol came with the EU's SPS controls. Thus it concluded that "the most significant single measures to alleviate the regulatory and administrative burden of the Protocol" would be a UK-EU SPS/veterinary agreement.

On this, it noted that the EU had suggested that a Swiss-style agreement based on dynamic alignment would remove 80 percent of checks. It also noted that the UK has argued in favour of a New Zealand-style equivalence framework.

With staggering perspicacity, the sub-committee then reported that the two sides have yet to find a compromise between their positions. How we possibly could have found this out without its timely intervention is beyond human imagination.

But, not content with this flash of genius, it then goes on to excel itself by proclaiming to the world that "it is clearly desirable to minimise the volume of checks as far as possible", then concluding that: "an SPS/veterinary agreement of any form is manifestly in the interests of Northern Ireland".

And, while it's on a roll, it goes on to "regret" that the UK and the EU have been unable to reach a compromise between their respective preferences for equivalence or alignment. It then calls on them "to intensify the search for an agreed SPS/veterinary solution, in the interests of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland".

Hurrah! The sub-committee has spoken. With its accumulated wisdom and access to the finest minds in the realm (not that it is bothered to use them), it has cone up with the definitive answer to the problem.

Paraphrased, it is calling on the UK and EU to intensify their search for a solution. Game over! We can all go home and rest in peace in our beds, comfortable in the knowledge that we have such wise and dedicated people working our behalf.

In truth, of course, this is simply a variation on the catch-all bureaucratic response to any and every conundrum. "The solution is simple", says the idiot bureaucrat. "Something must be done". In this case it is differently defined. All that has to happen is that the respective parties to the dispute must search for a solution. Pure genius.

Unsurprisingly, with such stunning conclusion, even the legacy media hasn't fallen over itself to publicise the report. But the BBC made a stab at it, headlined its web report with: "EU and UK criticised for 'flawed' protocol approach".

Its NI Economics & Business Editor, John Campbell, is obviously trying to do his best, trying to turn a sow's ear into something approximating a silk purse. He picks up on a statement of a bleedin' obvious in the report, telling that that the sub-committee has complained that the UK and EU have both taken a "fundamentally flawed" approach to the Protocol.

The noble lords, Campbell tells us, had criticised the "lack of clarity, transparency and readiness" on the part of the UK government and, just to be even-handed, had described the EU as lacking "balance, understanding and flexibility".

It was an "absolute necessity", Lord Jay said, that the UK and EU urgently worked together to ensure Northern Ireland did not become a "permanent casualty of the Brexit process". Thus says the noble lord, the political qualities of patience, dialogue and "most of all, trust", which had been seen during the Northern Ireland peace process, needed to come to the fore.

The report is saved from its own fatuity – and then only marginally so – by the kindness John Campbell who publishes the government's response. To describe it as vacuous really doesn't do it justice as a government spokesperson says they "shared the committee's concern about the significant disruption that the Protocol is causing on the ground in Northern Ireland".

"That is why", he says, "we published a Command Paper last week, clearly setting out the significant changes that are needed to the Protocol to ensure these arrangements can be sustainable for the future", adding that: "We look forward to engaging in talks with the EU to progress these proposals in the weeks ahead".

I suspect that this is the very last we hear of the sub-committee's "introductory report". But we've seen enough of it to raise the bigger question of why these people bother and, more to the point, why they so often prove to be a total waste of space.

In this particular case, one could hardly avoid noticing that the talks are at an impasse, with no common ground and not the slightest sign of agreement. The EU is saying that the protocol is the solution to the problem of Northern Ireland, while the UK government argues that Northern Ireland's problem is the protocol. You can't get much further apart than that.

Yet, here we have a group of supposedly experienced politicians, advised by a gaggle of professors and other luminaries – including, no less, Jess Sargeant, a "senior researcher" from the Institute of Government - and all they can do is come up with the very essence of clichéd drivel.

These days, this is so often the outcome of select committee deliberations that one must wonder whether the very institution is flawed. Certainly, their Lordships seem unduly influenced by prestige in the choice of their witnesses, going for the great and the good rather than people who know what they are talking about.

Hence we see Jess Sargeant confronting the problem of the SPS controls, telling the sub-committee "there is no clear alternative to the protocol that satisfies both the EU's aim of protecting the integrity of the single market and the UK Government’s aim of ensuring complete regulatory autonomy for at least Great Britain".

"Either one of those", she says, "has to give if we are to find another option, to a lesser or greater extent", thereby setting the scene for the failure of the report. With no idea of how to break the impasse, all he can do is hint at a compromise – something that is unlikely to happen.

A greater part of the problem, though, must be the poor quality of the questioning. Experienced politicians these might be, but they show no great skill in questioning witnesses, probing their knowledge and exposing their many weaknesses.

Anyone sentient should have known that a "split the difference" posture is not a solution and the witnesses should have been challenged with their views on measures which actually addressed the issues, rather than the lightweight drivel that was on offer.

I have sometimes wondered whether select committees should be structured differently so that, rather than have the politicians ask the questions – which are often as lightweight as the responses – they should employ experienced barristers to lead examinations. Additionally, the support staff need to be better equipped to draw on witnesses who can actually deliver material of value.

For the moment though, far from helping to devise solutions to ongoing problems, select committees are part of the problem – another part of a broken political system.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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