Northern Ireland’s protocol isn’t perfect—but Truss overplays the concerns

It is easy to forget that the UK government signed and negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol. The DUP also chose it after voting against all other Brexit options. Both sides are using incredible logic to separate the Protocol from their Brexit choices. This avoids contrast between the frustration experienced by unionists (after the government broke their promise to no sea border) and the total disregard shown to the majority of Northern Ireland’s Brexit opponents.

When votes were being cast for ever more difficult forms of Brexit, there was no sign of consent or consensus. The same MPs who are lamenting a democratic deficit relating to a small number of EU regulations, rejected and sneered at attempts by my party to insert mechanisms to protect consent in successive pieces of Brexit legislation and are demonstrating their concern for democracy by holding to ransom the Northern Ireland Assembly, against the wishes of more than 70 per cent of voters who chose parties committed to power-sharing in last month’s Stormont elections. It is a strange thing to see a renewed commitment to the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. This is despite having seen those parties fight it tooth and nail since its inception.

The DUP and UK government are studiously ignoring more and more data that shows NI’s strong economic growth relative to every other UK region outside London, due to the Protocol’s protection from Brexit. While there are certain issues to resolve, business leaders recognize that the Protocol is working and that other solutions are possible through negotiation and good faith. 

They won’t allow our economy to see the wood for the trees. Our unique dual market access could position us as a gateway to both EU and UK single markets. Invest NI has worked hard to convince British and Northern Irish politicians to promote the Protocol’s potential benefits to key industries like life and health sciences and aerospace. Even the DUP’s own caretaker economy minister begrudgingly acknowledged the unique access to the EU and UK markets by virtue of the Protocol in an investment strategy earlier this month. These are the areas we should be focusing on while we work through the challenges.


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While claims of “societal disruption” are wildly overplayed, the Protocol is indeed far from perfect. The SDLP and others expressed grave reservations about the Protocol’s signing and demanded a longer implementation period. They advocate passionately for borderless trade across these islands and for better political relationships. These concerns were ignored in the sales pitch for an oven ready deal, and businesses were given just days to implement the changes. It is working for many businesses, especially those in the North/South or involved in services. 

The obvious macro solution to the issue of trade friction moving goods into Northern Ireland is a bespoke SPS and Veterinary deal, but for all the declarations of what they would do for Northern Ireland, Johnson’s government “won’t do that”. 

Although the Protocol was intended to evolve, it requires negotiation and good faith rather than unilateral action and posturing. Business leaders have been united in their opposition of Article 16’s triggering. They have been making the new systems work and advancing 5 key suggestions that need to be moved from both the EU or the UK to address the remaining concerns of most businesses.

They reject Liz Truss’ mooted new dual regulatory proposals as the worst of both worlds, and they are clear that no one was bothered in the slightest about ECJ jurisdiction until David Frost inserted it as a new red line last summer. That was the tell for many people – using the cover of a combination of real and confected unionist outrage, the government have created freshly impossible asks that are impossible to achieve while protecting Northern Ireland’s single market access. Many fear that the UK’s mileage is not in the solution but in lamenting the problem. A Northern Ireland thriving due to single market access shows up the challenges of non-tariff barriers for businesses in Britain, while perpetual conflict with the “mean EU” helps to keep the old Brexit coalition together. 

The reality and politics are not the same in the Protocol negotiations as they are in Brexit. What the majority of people in Northern Ireland want, after 6 years of circular debate, is to no longer hear about Brexit in the media – morning, noon, and night. They want devolution to address hospital waiting lists, educational underachievement, and housing, issues that have blighted working-class Unionist and Nationalist communities alike, but which never seem to make it to the top of the DUP’s political agenda.

There are many ways to make the Protocol work, but it will require negotiation and good faith and a genuine interest for the welfare of Northern Ireland rather than its utility as a negotiation tool.