Saving Strand 1 of the Good Friday Agreement by thrashing Strand 2 (and the Northern Ireland economy).

Writing in the Irish Times, Newton Emerson is fairly scathing about the DUP/UK government deal.

“The DUP is fortunate nationalism is not laughing openly at the party’s deal with the British government.

It is not just that the deal’s sea border aspects are “the Windsor Framework in drag”, to quote the Belfast Telegraph’s Sam McBride.

Half of the 80-page command paper contains broader ideas for “Safeguarding the Union” – the deal’s title – that invite ridicule.

Some are sensible enough in themselves, such as strengthening commercial and cultural links between Britain and Northern Ireland. However, they are copied from the 2020 New Decade, New Approach deal to restore Stormont and have already proved a flop.

Others are lifted from the 2021 Union Connectivity Review, the infrastructure report that famously did not recommend a bridge to Scotland but still became a bit of a joke.

The red meat for unionism in the command paper is undercooked. A 2018 statutory duty to protect the “all-island economy” is being repealed, but this was superseded by the Brexit protocol two years later. The legislation is just being tidied up [Footnote 1].

There is a statement that “on the basis of all recent polling, the government sees no realistic prospect of a Border poll”.

This is a mere observation, consistent with the Belfast Agreement. The acknowledgment of opinion polls as a decisive factor is something unionism might regret.”

Newton Emerson goes on to argue that Sinn Féin, the Irish government, and the EU were kept briefed and are fully on board with the deal, noting that the UK-EU joint committee of the Windsor Framework had formally approved the trade aspects of the deal the day before the Command Paper was published.

Nevertheless Professor Katy Hayward sees fit to excoriate the UK government for failing to uphold the “rigorous impartiality” and “equality of esteem” requirements of the Good Friday Agreement in dealing only with the DUP throughout the whole Brexit process. She argues:

However, the objective of restoring the devolved democratic institutions – and the failure to do so – is an intergovernmental and all-party concern in Northern Ireland, and should have been approached as such. Instead, the future of Northern Ireland became increasingly in the hands of the leader of a party for whom 79% of the electorate did not give a first preference vote. 

This was illustrated by an extraordinary exchange in the House of Commons in which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, told the DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson:

“I can bring forward legislation in this place that does exactly what he needs it to do for his party to be able to give me a date when it will go back into the Executive in NI… as he knows, I constantly seek his guidance to ensure that I get this bit of my job completely right”.

I would go further. In an unpublished letter to the editors of various papers I argued:

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) commits both the Irish and British governments to promote the all-Ireland economy and sets up InterTradeIreland and other agencies to assist in doing so.  The ability to trade freely across an open border was one of the main reasons GFA was endorsed in referendums, north and south. 

The importance of this responsibility to promote the all-Ireland economy was also underscored in the 2017 Joint EU/UK report on the Brexit  negotiations which was later incorporated into UK law in section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. 

Yet paragraphs 71 and 114-116 of the UK Command Paper “Safeguarding the Union,”  (the DUP deal) have the audacity to describe the all-Ireland economy as a misguided, new and divisive political construct and declares the government’s intention to repeal its commitment, in section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 not to diminish any form of North-South cooperation provided for by the Belfast Agreement. 

In addition, by discussing and agreeing these proposals only with the DUP, the British government has failed to observe the “rigorous impartiality” and “parity of esteem” for all of Northern Ireland’s political parties and traditions as required by the Good Friday Agreement.

It is thus unilaterally resiling on agreements previously reached with other Northern political parties, Ireland, and the EU and administering a gratuitous a slap in the face for the Irish government ‘s commitment to providing funding for Northern Ireland and cross-border projects under Shared Island Initiative.

It beggars belief that the DUP and the British government should see ending north south cooperation as improving the prospects for reconciliation and economic development within Northern Ireland. Who gains from such a gratuitous attack on good neighbourly relations on the island? Do we really need to thrash Strand 2 of the GFA in an attempt to restore Strand 1, and does this not merely store up more problems for the future?”[Footnote 2]

It seems to me there is almost a conspiracy of silence whereby all parties (and perhaps the establishment media) have agreed not to rock the boat while the Strand 1 institutions are being restored, by pointing out that this is at the cost of undermining Strand 2 of the GFA.

In seeking to be positive and constructive the EU, the Irish government and even Sinn Féin have swallowed their pride and gone along with a charade which gives the D|UP a lot of rhetorical cover, if little of substance.

However, this forbearance could end up biting all in the rear if the DUP now turns around and uses the text of the Command Paper to justify an obstructionist attitude to the Strand 2 institutions of the GFA.

I can also see endless applications of the” Stormont brake” every time new or amended laws are enacted by the EU. Stormont may well revel in its newfound competence – also agreed in the original Protocol – in an external trade matter normally reserved for Westminster.

However, the endless uncertainty this could engender in Northern Ireland status in the Single Market could also destroy the confidence necessary to encourage long term investment in the Northern Ireland economy.

Cliff Taylor argues that “Northern Ireland has a chance to insulate itself from the madness of Brexit – the DUP deal puts this at risk” by casting doubt on its willingness to follow EU rules. Far from having the best of both worlds Northern Ireland could have the worst of both: increased checks on goods coming from Britain without enjoying the benefits of increased investment designed to make use of its access to the Single Market.

If you are an investor looking to build a factory for goods requiring access to the Single Market, would you take the risk of locating in Northern Ireland if this access could be cut off by political infighting in the Assembly?

Cliff Taylor concludes “If Northern Ireland’s future is looking only towards Britain and scoffing at the EU “rule-book”, this chance will be lost, and the North will find itself stuck economically in a post-Brexit backwater.”

David McWilliams amplifies the point:

When looking at national economics, all economies live and die by productivity or output per employee. In 2016, when Brexit was voted for, the UK had the second lowest productivity among G7 countries, well behind Germany and the US. For every hour worked a German employee produces 36 per cent more than a British employee. Oddly enough, small business in Britain – typically the backbone of Tory support – is a low-performing, low-wage sector. These people championed Brexit.

Two thirds of UK employees work for companies whose productivity is below average, resulting in lower wages for a higher proportion of UK workers (McKinsey) than other countries. The ONS data (UK’s CSO) evidence is that productivity has increased by a meagre 1.7 per cent in the 15 years from 2007 to 2022.

The recent slowdown has been remarkable. In the 15 years before that the UK saw productivity growth of 27 per cent. The UK has a few very good companies and lots of mediocre ones. (Just before we in Ireland sit on our laurels, if we didn’t have multinationals the picture here would be similar).

Ireland has been dealing with this problem by encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI) by leading edge companies. What hope is there for Northern Ireland if FDI is systematically discouraged?

Gordon Brown recently highlighted the consequences of this systemic failure:

“Britain is in the throes of a hidden poverty “epidemic”, with the worst-affected households living in squalor and going without food, heating and everyday basics such as clean clothes and toothpaste, the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown has said.

Brown accused the government of creating a wall of silence around “obscene” levels of destitution in the UK and criticised ministers for “systematically shredding” a social security system that had once provided a safety net for the poorest.

He said it was a “moral outrage” that the government was unwilling to tackle a social emergency that had created millions of forgotten and voiceless victims, one he compared in an article for the Guardian with the Post Office scandal in terms of the scale of ministerial neglect.

“In years to come, I believe people will be asking how it was that government walked by on the other side when thousands of children were suffering abject deprivation and failed to support them in their hours of need,” he said.

He described the poverty he had witnessed in his hometown of Kirkcaldy, where 70% of children were in poverty in some neighbourhoods, as the worst he had seen in his lifetime.

“In 2010, we were helping 100 children at Christmas [through charity schemes]. Last Christmas, it was 1,800,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.

He described Britain as “haunted by poverty we thought had been consigned to history”. The situation was deteriorating for destitute families whose children lacked proper clothing, or had to share beds, whose parents felt shame because they could not provide and feared their children would be taken into care as a result, he said.”

Traditionally there has been a suspicion that it is Sinn Féin that has a vested interest in ensuring that “Northern Ireland does not work,” in the hope of forcing people to consider a United Ireland as an alternative. More recently it has been the DUP which has held everyone else up to ransom, thrash talking all Ireland cooperation, and caring not a wit that all this uncertainty is putting investment decisions on hold, if not outright diverting them elsewhere.

And all the while the parties are united in demanding more money from Westminster, while doing little to generate more wealth creation and tax revenue within Northern Ireland. What we are seeing is the infantilisation of Northern Ireland politics, always expecting someone else to come to their aid, but refusing to take the necessary actions to improve the climate for investment, productivity and growth within Northern Ireland itself.


Footnotes:

  1. Unlike Newton Emerson, I fail to see how the enacting of the Protocol, as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, superseded the legal responsibility of the UK Government to implement Strand 2 of the GFA, as subsequently agreed with the EU and enacted in section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
  2. For those who doubt the GFA’s remit in this regard, the Strand 2 of the agreement states (my emphasis)

Under a new British/Irish Agreement dealing with the totality of relationships, and related legislation at Westminster and in the Oireachtas, a North/South Ministerial Council to be established to bring together those with executive responsibilities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland – including through implementation on an all-island and cross-border basis – on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the Administrations, North and South.

The Annex lists the following areas for cooperation and implementation:

1. Agriculture – animal and plant health.

2. Education – teacher qualifications and exchanges.

3. Transport – strategic transport planning.

4. Environment – environmental protection, pollution, water quality, and waste management.

5. Waterways – inland waterways.

6. Social Security/Social Welfare – entitlements of cross-border workers and fraud control.

7. Tourism – promotion, marketing, research, and product development.

8. Relevant EU Programmes such as SPPR, INTERREG, Leader II and their successors.

9. Inland Fisheries.

10. Aquaculture and marine matters

11. Health: accident and emergency services and other related cross-border issues.

12. Urban and rural development.

Others to be considered by the shadow North/ South Council.

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