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Negotiated Outcome on Protocol is Key for Stability in Northern Ireland

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Stephen Farry MP

Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party

Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party, Stephen Farry writes exclusively for Chamber on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It has been the consistent view of Alliance that there could not be a good Brexit for the United Kingdom as a whole, nor for Northern Ireland in particular.

Northern Ireland only works through sharing and interdependence¾particularly the interlocking relationships across the islands and the close partnership between the UK and Irish Governments.

Notably, the joint membership of the UK and the Republic of Ireland in the Customs Union and Single Market of the EU has allowed economic borders to wither away. Northern Ireland businesses rely on sales and supply chains on both a north-south and east-west basis.

However, the people of the UK did vote to leave the EU and it became clear that special arrangements were required to address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

Overall, Brexit will continue to pose considerable challenges to Northern Ireland. It has already further destabilised and polarised our politics and our institutions and energised a wider debate on the future constitutional status of our relationships within these islands.

When the Government decided to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union, this required some form of interface to be put in place somewhere between the UK and the EU’s economic zones. It is our strong view that any such interface must be managed and mitigated as far as possible.

A soft landing for Northern Ireland

The UK Government and the EU agreed on the protocol to address this reality. In many respects, the protocol represents a soft landing for Northern Ireland. It offers relative opportunities for Northern Ireland, compared with Great Britain, related to dual market access for goods to both Great Britain and the EU Single Market, and those should be preserved and maximised. However, the protocol also poses challenges that need to be minimised.

We acknowledge that for many unionists, this settlement touches on what they perceive as fundamental matters of identity. Therefore, they are seeking to undermine significant aspects of the protocol’s operation. Disappointingly, one mechanism that some unionists are employing¾to give them leverage of the protocol¾is a refusal to allow the Assembly and Executive to function.

25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

Next year will see the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which largely brought an end to decades of political turmoil and violence in Northern Ireland. However, as things stand today, the institutions created under that agreement are not sitting, due to one party¾the DUP¾exercising a veto over the appointment of a speaker of the Assembly and ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive. A similar situation existed between 2017 and 2020 when Sinn Féin withdrew from the Executive.

The absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive leaves Northern Ireland without the capacity to respond to the significant pressures arising in devolved areas such as health, education and justice.

However, this approach from the DUP is a fundamental misreading of the situation and a strategic error. By contrast, while there are no guarantees of success, the protocol at least offers Northern Ireland the prospect of a softer landing, with relative stability and some economic opportunities. It is important that all parties are encouraged to act in a pragmatic way.

Stephen Farry has been Deputy Leader of Northern Ireland party, Alliance since 2016
Stephen Farry has been Deputy Leader of Alliance since 2016

Mutual, sustainable and legal solutions

Looking forward, Alliance strongly supports the resolution of any outstanding protocol issues through negotiation between the UK Government and the EU.

The solutions must be mutually agreed upon, sustainable and legal. Northern Ireland businesses need certainty and the only way through the process is by negotiation. Ultimately, what is most crucial is Northern Ireland’s dual market access.

Positive outcomes on a range of practical challenges are possible within the next few weeks. These will require building a further partnership between the UK and EU Commission. Essentially, the UK is asking the EU to allow it to police aspects of its Single Market. The key ingredient is trust.

We see no alternative to negotiations and strongly reject false solutions based on unilateral actions.

The current Protocol Bill, presently before the House of Lords, is entirely unwarranted and it is in fact, counterproductive. It breaches international law, undermines the UK’s international standing and risks a damaging trade war with the EU. It is not wanted by Northern Ireland businesses and is opposed by most elected representatives.

Much is made of the continued oversight by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the protocol. The ultimate jurisdiction of the CJEU is integral to Northern Ireland’s compliance with relevant EU law under the protocol. This compliance with EU law is crucial to our ongoing access to the Single Market for goods. The business community in Northern Ireland has not expressed any concern with the CJEU jurisdiction.

It is vital that the pace of the talks between the UK Government and the EU Commission is accelerated over the coming weeks. It would be helpful if the Protocol Bill was taken off the table.

The UK Government has fundamental and wide-ranging interests in ensuring that there is a negotiated outcome in relation to the protocol. Even more crucially, this is essential for the stability and sustainability of a shared and integrated Northern Ireland.

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