NI Protocol: “Pragmatic and flexible leadership needed from Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels…”

“The beginning [of the new epoch] consists in the recognition of interrelationships. More and more, people will see that there exist no ‘specialised’ questions, to be identified or solved in isolation, since in the end, everything is interconnected, interdependent.”

Wassily Kandinsky

With parliaments on both sides of the water in recess we might expect respite from the war of words that has displaced serious consideration of the Northern Irish protocol. However Brexit has eaten every summer since 2016.

Just before the UK’s command paper last week the University of Liverpool published an authoritative paper of its own calling for all parties to the dispute to deal directly with its problematic issues in order to enact its many opportunities.

The authorial list is usefully diverse, including Peter Shirlow, Michael D’Arcy, Alison Grundle, Jarlath Kearney and Brendan Murtagh. That adds not just substance to the material, but ultimately to the quality of framework they offer.

Far from the misrerabilist invective that has dominated the debate on both sides (leading at times to some bizarre assertions in both Dublin and London about the other), the paper focuses on the opportunities the Protocol offers:

Versions of political and media discourse, practice and rhetoric have undermined a wider appreciation of the emerging opportunities. In particular, tensions at diplomatic and intergovernmental levels require resolution by rebuilding trust.

The totality of relationships must be at the heart of this dialogue. That applies not just to the dynamic of the Ireland-UK relationship but also requires greater empathy and understanding by the EU that stretches beyond technical functionalities. [Emphases added]

That’s a useful correction to the legalistic terms some on the EU side (and under the previous Irish administration) have used to suggest, “that’s the deal, the outcome doesn’t matter”. Given where we’ve come from, it does.

Of course, that’s matched by a Cavalier (wrong but wromantic at least to it’s own nationalistic base) UK government, whose loose imagineering around Brexit avoided all talk or consideration of the detail of what It would or could mean.

The fuzzy “imagineering” of Brexit during the referendum invoked the idea that it would be a single “life-changing” event. On the day itself I overheard a young builder ask his mate if building regs would no longer apply if Leave won.

But Shirlow et al, argue that the opposite is the case. The protocol in particular is actually a long term process (particularly important as future divergences or even convergences will need much closer co-operation than ever).

They write:

This framing is important insofar as it opens up strategic and ongoing opportunities for practical, flexible, creative and positive development in responding to ever-evolving realities.

This isn’t some class of pipe dream, it’s actually happening already. Laura Noonan and Michael O’Dwyer recently reported in the FT that quietly investors have been making their way back to Belfast.

Citi told the Financial Times it would hire 400 more Belfast staff over the next two years, taking its total headcount in the city to 3,600, almost 10 times the 375 jobs the bank created when it become one of the first big multinationals to plant a flag in the region in 2004.

FinTrU, an eight-year-old start-up offering regulatory technology to global investment banks, will double its Northern Ireland headcount to 1,600 in the next five years, spread between Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, according to founder, chief executive and Irishman Darragh McCarthy.

Citi and FinTrU’s plans follow recent announcements by Big Four accounting firms PwC, Deloitte and KPMG, who together will create 2,200 Belfast jobs over the next five years, a significant boost for Northern Ireland’s 43,000-strong professional and financial services sector.

Conflict in Northern Ireland has, for much of the peace process era, been fuelled by competition for public expenditure and public employment as much as for control of state power. In the early 2000s, public wage levels trumped private.

In 2003 Northern Ireland had 148 quangos, accounting for over 2000 public appointments and over half of all public expenditure. Although its employment is limited Belfast is listed has the third biggest centre for Fintech, in the world.

This is just a quiet dividend for the removal of large-scale communal violence. Whether we like it or not, economic interdependence with the rest of the world is not only growing it is already conferring substantial economic benefits.

Whilst the paper recognises this change is happening it doesn’t dwell on it. The subtitle is framed as an important question. In negotiations around the protocol are we simply “responding to tensions” or “enacting opportunity?”

They argue that the protocol with its affirmation of ongoing membership of the UK combined with privileged access to the single market, should be viewed as a reset moment, offering…

…a range of opportunities for economic growth and leadership with the potential to resolve existing structural incapacities and economic impediments.

One of the reasons why Northern Ireland has struggled to realise the peace dividend that many expected (and which, to be frank, the Republic received in full measure) is the long economic war rendered the state the last man standing.

But aligning Northern Ireland with the opportunities of the Protocol is not as easy as it may seem at the optimist’s first glance. The paper notes that in fixing the N-S relationships new complexities and tensions have arisen E-W.

It notes that the overall discourse of fixing and responding to identity issues is not presently contiguous with a wider policy regarding building a peace dividend in Northern Ireland.” Addressing single grievances in isolation won’t work.

The fact that even after nearly 25 years of peace, the local media still seems to love a crisis, or the mere whiff of things falling apart has “undermined a [public] appreciation of these interdependencies as opportunities”.

Critically, they warn…

If the opportunities within the Protocol are not realised then the Protocol will be reduced to a set of technocratic laws whose implementation will forever be driven in part by a response to identity politics.

Some benefits may continue to grow in spite of continuing political indifference to the possibilities of change but it would be without the social and infrastructural support that to spread its benefits more widely and more fairly.

So what are these possibilities? They suggest six main areas:

  1. NI as a site of investment: Private sector investment is attracted to conditions and locations where there is high degree of certainty and stability. The Protocol jointly agreed by the UK and EU “address(es) the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland through a unique solution”. This can create a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario for Northern Ireland that, by any objective economic criteria, has the potential to drive significant growth and investment.
  2. NI business in EU Customs Code: Northern Ireland businesses have an advantage in trading with EU over those in GB. Firms operating in Northern Ireland can source and supply goods to Ireland and/or the rest of the EU without having to go through regulatory checks, thereby avoiding the additional costs and demands of regulatory compliance and control.
  3. Access to the GB & EU market: Post-Brexit Northern Ireland finds itself in a unique position with access to trade in both the UK and EU markets.
  4. Building the N-S economy: Previously leveraged economies of scale and proximity achieved by indigenous sectors have been retained. To preserve enhanced access to GB, there are the businesses in Ireland already operating or considering operating in Northern Ireland via integrated operations. This could potentially involve large FDI manufacturers.
  5. The Common Travel Area (CTA): This continued free movement between peoples on these islands lessens the impact of the Protocol on the 100,000 British nationals living in Ireland and the four times as many Irish nationals living in the UK. However, it is so far largely unrecognised, and therefore underappreciated for the core protections it affords.
  6. N-S Infrastructure investment: Although not directly associated with the Protocol infrastructure remains an issue of importance. The ‘hard’ infrastructure that provides energy, roads, rail etc. and the ‘soft’ infrastructure of third level education/skills reskilling/research and development, along with strengthening and expanding health, environment, biodiversity and other community support services, requires significant investment.

However, none of these are accessible if there’s no resolution of a range of issues that come with the Protocol’s unfinished character, the most pressing of which is the movement of goods east to west.

To those who say, tough, get all your black puddings from Clonakility, it’s a done deal, here’s what the protocol actually says:

Article 5 (2): For the purposes of the first and second subparagraphs of paragraph 1, a good brought into Northern Ireland from outside the Union shall be considered to be at risk of subsequently being moved into the Union.

Article 5 (2): Before the end of the transition period, the Joint Committee shall by decision establish the criteria for considering that a good brought into Northern Ireland from outside the Union is not at risk of subsequently being moved into the Union.

This flexibility is some rarely acknowledged within the public discourse. As Shirlow et al, note:

On the one hand, the lack of advance planning and preparedness together with the ‘rules based attitude’ of the EU currently is causing a bureaucratic and logistical burden on businesses and trade E-W.

The scale of this burden may be masked by the current grace periods that provide a delay to full implementation of rules until October 2021. On the other hand, the Protocol has compelled new thinking and innovation.[Emphasis added]

In jettisoning the politics of negation, as Robin Wilson put it in his 1999 pamphlet Beyond either/or, we have to deal with the upsides of the Protocol, yet find ourselves immersed in the same fin de siècle pessimism we did back then.

But to get to the upside, we have to deal with East West trade impacts. They re-iterate a point we’ve heard Shirlow make here on Slugger, which is that when you quantify the risk of infiltration of the single market it’s a tiny proportion.

This is a key point public commentators on both islands seem shy of admitting:

Once Northern Ireland has met its own needs in transporting goods into its home market there is little additional capacity to facilitate illicit trade onwards into Ireland from there the EU.

The truth is that the Protocol (in its current form) is not as popular as some of its advocates presume. In March this year, 70%+ of respondents in a QUB study said they were concerned or very concerned about its proposed operation.

Whilst it is a major benefit to home exporters, without trusted trader agreements and the like, it is small retailers who without the efficiencies of scale of larger operators, who will suffer since they ‘import’ multiple lines from Britain.

That’s a problem that won’t discriminate on political or cultural lines. What is a given is that the protocol (or its problems) are not going to go away. Fixing it ought to be a priority for everyone, in the south as well as the north.

Peace was hard won as much against our own fatalistic beliefs that it could never be solved. As the authors argue, that peace (and the prosperity needed to anneal it) should rank above any other hostilities within negotiations.

That means stretching public discourse to include these higher long term priorities, and not just focusing on the various points of departure over issues of risk or rules implementation. That requires ‘pragmatic and flexible leadership.’

Reliance on over engineered solutions can undermine relationships and in time, perhaps, even the protocol itself. What matters is not what kind of rules must be implemented, but kind of outcome can we get that fixes the peace.

It’s perhaps a hopeful sign that the government in Dublin has dropped the bellowing (that’s if Simon Coveney could ever be said to have bellowed at any one in his whole life) diplomacy. What we need are solutions, not more rhetoric.

For those concerned to get to an outcome we can all live with (and the final arrival of Northern Ireland’s long delayed peace dividend) this paper is a must read.

The writer Ben Okri has said that people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselvesWe need to make a choice between the stories that shrink life and the stories that expand it and allow us to breath and to grow and to flourish.

-Bryan Delaney, We need to talk about Ireland.