IT'S not entirely clear exactly what the French President, Emmanuel Macron, said to Boris Johnson at the G7 about Northern Ireland not being part of Britain. But it is very clear what he meant: the Province is not an indivisible part of Britain as far as regulation is concerned. The PM had asked him if he would find it acceptable for sausages in Toulouse to be banned from sale in Paris. Mr Macron said there was no comparison because Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain in the way Toulouse and Paris are part of France.

French diplomatic sources reportedly clarified that Mr Macron was referring to the fact that Northern Ireland is technically not part of Great Britain, and didn't deny that it was a component of the territorial UK. That is true. “Great Britain”, strictly speaking, refers to Scotland, England,Wales and the inner isles. However, this a disingenuous qualification. The point is that Northern Ireland is under British sovereignty, not least under the Good Friday Agreement

The fact that the North is not physically attached to the rest of the UK is also irrelevant. Mr Macron would not accept people saying that the island of Corsica is not a full and indivisible part of the French state, though that would be music to the ears of Corsican nationalists. It is hugely damaging that this sovereignty issue should have been raised on the very eve of the Orange marching season when the unionists celebrate their indivisible membership of the UK.

As my colleague Neil Mackay explained in his column yesterday, the men of violence are already anticipating a resumption of the Troubles. If there is free movement of goods over the Irish border then they will say that the same must apply to the movement of goods to and from the UK. No customs posts, no SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks, no tariffs and no bureaucratic friction. Even if he wanted to, Boris Johnson could not simply give up on Northern Ireland, because he would be breaching the east-west dimension to the Good Friday Agreement.

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Now, at this point it is necessary to remind my friends and colleagues that I never supported Brexit in the first place and wanted Britain to remain in the European single market. There is an assumption that as a Remainer it is my duty to side with Brussels. But I've never been an uncritical supporter of the European Union. It is essentially a protectionist cartel, which uses tariff and non-tariff barriers to inhibit free trade. Brussels is also capable of behaving extremely badly – just ask the Greeks. And it is playing with fire over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Brussels appears to be retrospectively applying the terms of Theresa May's Northern Ireland backstop, which involved keeping the entire UK dynamically aligned with EU regulations. That is Mr Macron's interpretation of the NI Protocol and “non-negotiable”. Many of my colleagues clearly think that the EU is right to demand this. I do not. The UK Parliament repeatedly rejected Theresa May's deal in 2018/19. Even Jeremy Corbyn said the backstop was something no sovereign country could accept because “it locks Britain into a backstop from which it cannot leave”.

Remainers insist that it's all still Mr Johnson's fault for signing the NI Protocol and he has to accept the result. But what we do know is that he would never have signed up to any agreement that committed the UK to staying in the EU single market. Otherwise why have Brexit in the first place? That would have made it impossible for Britain to strike this week's trade deal with Australia.

The Good Friday Agreement is often discussed as if it were really about Irish reunification by stealth. Many Democrats in America, almost certainly including Joe Biden, believe that Ireland's partition 100 years ago was wrong and that Ireland should be reunited. That may well be the case, though the situation at the time was that the unionist community was militarised and determined to conduct a civil war rather than become part of a united Ireland.

Loyalists hold an anti-Northern Ireland Protocol protest against the so-called Irish Sea border

Loyalists hold an anti-Northern Ireland Protocol protest against the so-called Irish Sea border

Things have not changed materially since then. There is a weight of history here which European politicians perhaps fail to appreciate. Next month we see the marching season in Northern Ireland when the Unionists celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. That was when the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic, Jacobite forces of James VII & II supported by the French. This is why we have Orange Lodges and songs about “King Billy” at football matches. This is living history, in Scotland too.

Orange marches are generally regarded, with some justification, as a form of anti-Catholic intimidation. The bowler-hatted Orangemen carry umbrellas instead of guns, but the processions, led by the thunderous Lambeg Drum, have strong militaristic overtones. Ulster Unionists have a reactionary and often belligerent image. But that does not mean they are wrong to insist that they are part of Britain. Under Good Friday they emphatically are.

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This is why a reset of the Northern Ireland Protocol is imperative. Britain thought it was signing up to a flexible arrangement whereby only goods passing through Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic were going to be subject to customs checks. There was to be a joint committee set up to determine how this was to be achieved. What no one on the British side expected was that UK goods destined only for Northern Ireland would be subject, not only to checks, but actual exclusion if Britain did not adhere, in perpetuity, to the regulations of the EU single market.

This is plainly unacceptable. Even Emily Thornberry, Labour's shadow international trade secretary, accepts that British sausages must be on sale throughout Britain. She says both sides should “stop bickering”. But both sides need first to understand the history of the Province. Mr Macron's intervention has been a disaster because he failed to do so. Hitherto, with a bit of fudging, there could have been discreet border checks at Northern Irish ports. But now that the issue has been presented as one of sovereignty itself, that won't wash. For peace in Ireland, the only solution now is no borders either side.

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