The NI Protocol is shaky ground upon which to build a better future.

In addition to some unionists echoing the worst traits of ‘big house unionism ‘with patronising and condescending statements stressing working class credentials, parroted condemnations of recent protests and street violence, the main thrust, of a for once civil conversation between MLAs, highlighted leadership but lacking in any visible self-referencing. The special sitting of the Assembly did not seem to achieve much

There was little emphasis on the fact that the first person that any erstwhile leader has to lead is him- or herself.

Mike Nesbitt MLA skirted around the subject with reference to the Good Friday Agreement and delicately challenged members as to whether the Assembly had exercised the required ‘stewardship’ – not his word – of what the vast majority endorsed in 1998 but few if any responded to the challenge; each thinking perhaps the remarks mostly relevant to someone else. Thoughts of ‘If only everyone could be like the Alliance party’ seemed to dance on the wistful pleas of some.

 

Maybe this is not the case but it raised the question as to the relevance of the occasion to the situation as it presents. Members spoke harmoniously of a need to work together to address the issues which are a root cause of the street actions but if they are do this, there is a need to move beyond blaming ‘sinister elements’ as the only factor and look to the failings of collective leadership and its inability to build consensus around the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland.

 

Twenty-three years after the Good Friday Agreement, peace still feels like conflict and more so as the streets erupt into violence. The view in London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington that Northern Ireland can be consigned to the ‘problem-solved ‘tray seems now to have been overly optimistic. Each, with the local parties, has played a role by allowing constitutional clutter to shape the outcome of the negotiations which came into effect on January 2021 and in particular the NI Protocol premised on the need for Northern Ireland to be considered a ‘special case’ primarily based on threats of violence. The issue was allowed to become unnecessarily emotive and politically loaded.

 

Was this the creative, ethical and consensual leadership required?

 

The current climate of active and passive resistance would point to a negative response. The last few months, post January, have seen a change and hardening of attitude. Unionists, in growing numbers, who voted to ‘Remain’ now endorse leaving the EU and have become Brexiteers. Unhappy and discontent dwellers in the leafy-suburbs, whilst not endorsing attacks on the police and destruction of property, cannot find it within to condemn without equivocation the expression of disapproval for Northern Ireland’s compromised position within the United Kingdom, supposedly secured under a principle of consent.

 

The cause may not justify the means; but the cause is just.

 

When you back people into a corner against their wishes, they either have to let you force them onto their knees submissively or resist. When this is accompanied by lack of respect, indifference and demonization of legitimate views, resentment is easily nurtured. The latest statement by the spokesperson for the US President that the administration condemns the violence and endorses the Trade and Customs Agreement and the NI Protocol as protecting the Good Friday Agreement seems somewhat poorly judged and insensitive with the Agreement being hollowed out. Maybe it has reached the point of needing constant repetition to sound convincing beyond the cloistered thinking of the Irish caucus?

 

Sometimes it seems that people go out of their way to pour fuel on the fire.

 

John Hume, much admired in Washington, when he spoke of uniting people and avoiding ideological conflict, noted that coercion, soft or hard, does not always work in ways anticipated by its advocates.  The corollary of this is that you cannot change opinion through self-justifying the exclusion of the other’s priorities to render them invisible. That is not the way to sow the seeds of change and reconciliation; it is a failure of leadership and in this instance, the essence of the Good Friday Agreement.

 

There are a number of factors which have contributed to the situation and those interested in point-scoring will wish to emphasise some over others but they have not carried the same weighting throughout the process as it has unfolded from 2016 onwards.

 

Analysis of these provides useful insight but a verbal joust as to who is responsible is pointless. The imperative now is to solve the very evident political economic and social problems relating to the Protocol. This will only be achieved through leadership prepared to accommodate compromise and a commitment by those who insist that it is the only way to address those problems and those who insist that the NI Protocol must go, to build consensus.

 

We are back in referendum territory in regards to needing accurate communication on all aspects of the Protocol – economic, political and constitutional. That’s where it has landed and people need specific information. At present, it is a drip feed exercise in regard to many areas and possible implications. It seems that only as problems which were not foreseen arise can they be dealt with. This points to the need for a lengthy transition lead-in or period of grace on many levels.

 

Businesses are facing supply difficulties and higher costs which are being passed on to customers. People returning from Great Britain see that food available there is unavailable in a store of the same name in Northern Ireland. The Internal Market Act is leaving consumers vulnerable to lack of competition and monopolies. Individuals coming home to visit relatives face unnecessary costs either to bring or board pets. Goods once accessible online are now not available. Northern Ireland is officially in the UK’s customs territory but Article 5 of the Protocol applies the EU’s Union Customs Code to goods entering NI from third countries. As a consequence, EU import requirements, such as entry summary declarations and customs declarations, must now be completed for all goods being traded into Northern Ireland, including from Great Britain. Similarly, it is the EU’s Common External Tariff that is applied in the first instance to goods entering Northern Ireland from outside the EU. So, while Northern Ireland is claimed to remain in the UK’s customs territory, it is in effect in the EU customs area. Customs duties are liable on goods entering Northern Ireland from outside the EU if they are deemed ‘at risk’ of entering the EU which includes the Republic of Ireland. The UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement creates a zero-tariff deal for direct UK-EU trade but certain goods entering into Northern Ireland from the EU from Great Britain are regarded as being ‘reimported’ and attract a tariff. To facilitate Northern Irish goods access to the single market, checks are required when these goods move from Great Britain to make sure they comply with EU standards. This leads to sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) controls on plant and animal products.

 

In addition to this, EU legislation still applies to Northern Ireland and carries potential for greater divergence within the United Kingdom with NI paying the price, economically and politically. The Government is prevented from using state aid if it is deemed to distort trade between Northern Ireland and the EU. This clearly restricts the use of subsidies in Northern Ireland, could restrict investment and put the Northern Ireland economy at a disadvantage

The Protocol states that measures should not prevent ‘unfettered access’ to Britain. The UK Government stated that this means ‘no additional process or paperwork and no restrictions on Northern Ireland goods arriving in the rest of the UK.

However, the UK is currently not enforcing new border checks and controls on goods entering Britain from the EU or from Northern Ireland. When these become operational, Northern Ireland could be a conduit for the EU into Britain. The UK Government has promised that it will tighten the definition of businesses that qualify for ‘unfettered access’ to GB in due course. This will re-introduce a greater measure of friction. Will travellers coming from London to Belfast have to make customs declarations?

These are not and will not be teething problems and have nothing to do with ‘sinister elements.

Do rioters on the streets know chapter and verse the details of the NI Protocol? Probably not but what they do understand along with others who are seeking to curtail and end the protests is that Northern Ireland is more detached from the rest of the United Kingdom than it was in 1998; that this does not feel like consent but coercion. Northern Ireland does not feel like a special case but rather a template for EU damage limitation. Northern Ireland, its political, social and economic prospects have been launched into the future on ‘a wing and a prayer’. The EU gave a fool’s pardon to political strategists unable to resist the opportunity to drive an irredentist and land grab agenda.

Political Unionism has lined up to demand that the NI Protocol is abandoned; an unlikely outcome. The alternative is not to accept it meekly. There is no appetite for this however can it give a more constructive lead by suspending its call for the removal of the Protocol which is clearly not in the mind of Parliament and reserve the right to re-instate it at the end of the transition period; test the extent to which Northern Ireland is special? Nationalism and republicanism have stated there is no desire for a border on the island of Ireland or the Irish Sea so test this resolve, allocate time and get back to the drawing board.

 

If this is really all about trade and agreement and not a land grab to impose constitutional change a good place to start is by re-visiting the possibilities within structures that already exist.

 

A CTA model exists. When the first All-Ireland Dialogue took place in 2017 there were over 180 sectoral and political all-Ireland and Northern Ireland organisations present. The 3 strands of the Good Friday Agreement provide for All-Island Bodies one crucially focused on InterTrade:

 

As required by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the North-South Ministerial Council agreed six formal areas of cooperation, for which common policies and approaches are agreed but implemented separately in each jurisdiction:

  • Agriculture – agricultural subsides, animal and plant health and rural development.
  • Education – special needs education, educational under achievement, teacher qualifications and school, youth and teaching exchanges.
  • Environment – research into environmental protection and cross-border water quality and waste management.
  • Health – accident and emergency planning, planning for major emergencies, co-operation on high technology equipment, cancer research and health promotion.
  • Tourism – the promotion of tourism on the island of Ireland, to be implemented by Tourism Ireland.
  • Transport – cooperation on strategic transport planning and road and rail safety.

The council also agreed a further six areas of North-South cooperation, where strategies are implemented directly by six ‘implementation bodies’:

  • Waterways Ireland – which is responsible for the management and development of inland waterways for recreational purposes.
  • Food Safety Promotion Board – conducts research into food safety standards and coordinates scientific cooperation and specialised testing.
  • InterTradeIreland – promotes trade and businesses on an all-Island basis.
  • Special European Union Programmes Body – manages and oversees EU funding programmes including PEACE III funding (which will continue now the UK has left the EU).
  • The Language Body – consisting of agencies Foras na Gaelige and Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch to promote the Irish Language and Ulster-Scots respectively.
  • Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission – consisting of the Lough Agency – which promotes commercial and recreational fishing in Loughs, and the Lights agency – which was intended to take on the functions of the Lighthouse Authority, but due to complications has not done so.

In 2018 in a Joint paper resulting from a mapping exercise carried out by the NI Civil Service and the EU, it was stated:

 

‘The UK and EU have delivered on our commitment to North-South cooperation in the legal

text of the Protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland. A core objective (Article 1(3)) of the

Protocol is to “maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation.”

Article 13, on ‘Other areas of North-South cooperation’, requires the Protocol to be

implemented and applied so as to maintain the necessary conditions for continued

North-South cooperation, including in the areas of environment, health, agriculture,

transport, education and tourism, as well as in the areas of energy, telecommunications,

broadcasting, inland fisheries, justice and security, higher education and sport.

 

Since that time Taoiseach Micheál Martin has launched a Shared Island initiative in which many cross-border bodies and civic unionists have participated. On a conservative estimate there are more than 150 examples of cross-border co-operation and collaboration.

 

With all of that goodwill and network in place why did the EU insist on erecting walls as opposed to exploring gateways whilst maintaining it is protecting a Good Friday Agreement it is undermining?

 

The more this is looked at the more puzzling and perplexing becomes the situation. What is the agenda?

 

Unionism wants to explore ways to make Northern Ireland work for all and many are prepared to explore the potential of a ‘special case model’ but not the current one.

London, Dublin and Brussels need to provide more creative and less clumsy leadership than that which created the problems and certainly better than that on display at Stormont where MLAs seem to feel that admonishing each other on the naughty step is the answer.

There is goodwill within unionism beyond the frustration and anger being shown on the streets; beyond skewed thinking that the only way to save something is to destroy it.

This is an opportunity to be explored and commends civic conversation beyond the usual political forums.

If we are to truly share this island within the current political model or whatever the future may bring, it can only be done on the basis of mutual respect and inclusion.

The NI Protocol is shaky ground on which to build a better future.

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