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Analysis Are we seeing a change in mood music when it comes to the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Emma DeSouza writes her thoughts from Strasbourg on whether a breakthrough on the Protocol is possible.

THE FUTURE OF Northern Ireland’s powersharing institutions remains uncertain as UK foreign minister James Cleverly spoke with EU vice-president Maroš Šefčovič in Brussels for last ditch efforts to resolve the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This comes as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – who have effectively halted Northern Ireland’s powersharing institutions in opposition to post-Brexit trade arrangements – proclaim that unionists will not be “bullied or cajoled” into returning to Stormont.

The unionist party has taken a stance against the Northern Ireland protocol, contending that the Brexit arrangements which require checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and are harmful to Northern Ireland’s economy by creating barriers to trade between the two regions of the UK. Both arguments have been roundly rejected.

A Protocol that benefits

Figures released this week show the value of GB sales to Northern Ireland increased by 7% in the year after the NI Protocol began to be implemented. According to the NI Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), Northern Ireland’s external sales – which consist of international exports and sales to GB – rose by 14.5% to a total of nearly £25bn in 2021. Sales to Great Britain alone grew by 13% to almost £13bn, while exports to the Republic of Ireland also increased by 23% to reach a record £5.2bn.

This data follows mounting evidence that people and businesses alike increasingly favour the Northern Ireland protocol. According to a report released this week, 54% of Chamber of Commerce members believe that the Protocol is helping their businesses grow.

In a post-conflict society struggling under the weight of political dysfunction and socio-economic deprivation, the protocol offers a much-needed opportunity for economic growth, providing the region with unparalleled dual market access to both the UK and EU Single Market.

The challenge for the DUP now is that they have aligned themselves with the hard-right Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party (ERG). This is despite the fact that Northern Ireland is and will inherently remain tied to Europe, given roughly half of the population are Irish citizens, and therefore EU citizens; A hard Brexit that rebukes any and all European values was never going to work.

Last push for agreement

While talks take place in Brussels between the UK and EU, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is meeting with Northern Ireland’s political parties. There appears to be a concerted effort to find a resolution, with Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews having stated, “There’s forbearance on both sides to leave the space necessary.

And of course, then there’s the attraction of April, 25 years of the Good Friday agreement. So I, think things are very positive.” This sense of optimism was reflected in remarks from Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly, who said he would be “amazed” if a solution was not found “either before Christmas or in the New Year”.

This follows speculation that a possible state visit from US President Joe Biden in 2023 hinges on a negotiated solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the restoration of Northern Ireland’s powersharing institutions.

Kelly confirmed that two further EU committees would be travelling to Belfast in the New Year, including the Foreign Affairs Committee. This follows a Trade committee delegation in October and indicates efforts are underway to engage more directly with stakeholders in Northern Ireland.

Andrews said it is “crucial that we have Belfast to Brussels connective tissue”, with Fine Gael MEP Colm Markey lamenting on the presence of only one Northern Ireland representative on the Parliamentary Assembly Committee, suggesting that a “sub structure” with speaking rights could be established under the two governments in order to include more Northern voices.

Political sands shifting

It isn’t just the mood music that has changed, but the terms as well. As a result of the UK’s unilateral attempts to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the EU has sought to strengthen the mechanisms and tools at its disposal in retaliation.

Sean Kelly, who led in the drafting of the legislation, has stated that everything will be on the table should the UK proceed with unilateral action, including “access for goods into the European market and indeed, all the other things that the United Kingdom enjoys at the moment because of the withdrawal agreement.” Adding that “all mechanisms, both legal and technical”.

It is in essence a safety net for the EU, described as a “defence mechanism” by Kelly. As an economist and former chancellor, few believe British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will risk a trade war with the EU in the midst of record-breaking inflation and large-scale strikes, simply to appease the DUP.

The question is – will the outcome give the DUP enough room to climb down the ladder? And if the motivation for renewed focus is to cobble together a zombie Northern Assembly to create a mirage of powersharing and political stability for the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, how long will it really last?

Peace in Northern Ireland is predicated on the principles of cooperation and compromise, and it is in the spirit of these values that a solution will be found; There is no “one-side-takes-all” in a productive negotiation. Rishi Sunak has placed the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which the DUP wants to see enacted – “on ice”.

This follows the British government ratifying the Language and Identity Bill, and commissioning abortion services in Northern Ireland, both red line issues which the DUP opposes. The British government, in the clearest possible terms, is signalling to the DUP that they are not in the driving seat.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has laid dormant for almost a third of its existence; Since last May’s election, five attempts to form a government have been made and subsequently blocked by the DUP. The institutions are not working, and serious conversations need to be had over possible reform. As evidenced in the 2021 Northern Ireland census, the North has changed; Mechanisms and functions which were necessary in 1998 may have long-since served their purpose, opening the door for a new era of political institutions to carry the torch.

While there is much speculation over a deadline for an Agreement between the UK and EU, Kelly contends that “the real deadline is going to be for the Northern election.” The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland bought the negotiating teams more time by rushing through legislation to push back a Northern Ireland election, and the DUP now has until 19 January to ask themselves: Does the party even want to make Northern Ireland work?

Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner.


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