Brexit seen taking back seat after Russian invasion

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The war in Ukraine has overwhelmed plans by the British government to trigger a showdown with the European Union, according to reports in the London media.

In order to satisfy jingoistic Tories and the DUP, Boris Johnson had been expected to trigger Article 16 of the Irish Protocol of the Brexit deal, deepening a crisis in Britain’s relationship with the EU, and potentially launching a trade war.

The plan, part of the so-called ‘Operation Save Little Dog’, is now believed to have been shelved ahead of the Stormont elections in May, according to reports in the British broadsheets.

The DUP, the largest party at Stormont, has lost support to unionist hardliners who blame it for port checks they describe as an ‘Irish Sea Border’, but also to moderates who have been defending the commercial benefits of the north’s special status with the EU.

In pre-election campaigning, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said he will no longer take part in power-sharing unless his party is returned as the largest in the Stormont Assembly, and unless the Protocol is effectively scrapped.

But Johnson is now “unlikely” to deploy the extreme option of triggering a trade war in support of the DUP demands, according to the London Telegraph and the Financial Times. The window for using Article 16 closes on March 26, when the north of Ireland enters a pre-election “purdah” period, during which any London initiative advantageous to the DUP would be deemed unlawful.

More pressingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reduced the ministerial capacity for a political row with the EU, it was reported.

With Russian tank divisions moving westward and concerns of escalation, fear of Vladimir Putin has erased anti-EU nationalism from the British media. It has also wrecked it as a strategy for winning public support for Johnson and the Conservative Party, at least in the short term.

Peter Ricketts, the former head of the Foreign Office, said last week, “it’s now glaringly obvious Britain must have a closer relationship with the EU”.

Russian interference in support of a hard Brexit is also being increasingly recognised as a strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. The Tory party has taken £2m of Russian-linked donations since Boris Johnson’s anti-EU war cabinet took power.

Amid a flood of questions at Westminster about the Tory policy towards Russia, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss (pictured), brushed off a demand at Westminster by DUP MP Ian Paisley to “set a deadline, an absolute deadline” for a resolution of the protocol dispute.

Political commentator Brian Feeney said that in light of recent events, hardline unionists and loyalists are “on the wrong side of history” and predicted that loyalist protests would wind down.

Unionist anti-protocol events are due to take place on Friday in Crossgar, County Down, in Ballymoney, County Antrim, on March 25, and in Lurgan, County Armagh on April 8.

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