The agreements reached on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol between the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission are, in some respects, an attempt to mitigate the worst elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol signed last year.
The Democratic Unionist Party opposed the protocol and voted against it in the House of Commons. We consistently warned both the May and the Johnson Government about treading this path. Sadly, despite our votes, the Government continued to pursue arrangements for Northern Ireland that are both unnecessary and left uncorrected potentially damaging to the NI economy.
Our guiding principle throughout the period of exit negotiations has been that Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the United Kingdom must not be undermined and Northern Ireland must continue to enjoy unfettered access both to, and from, Great Britain.
Some aspects of today’s statement indicates that progress has been secured and in particular we welcome the commitment that there will be no additional paperwork to be completed by businesses moving goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. We will want to ensure that regardless of wider circumstances there continues to be full-unfettered access for our businesses to the lucrative Great Britain marketplace. This is vital if Northern Ireland is to continue to be a full participant in the United Kingdom internal market.
We remain concerned by those elements of this ‘in principle agreement’ that are characterised by grace periods and time-limited derogations, and in particular we will want to continue to lobby the Government to ensure that at the end of the six month period Northern Ireland will not be required to switch suppliers away from GB for chilled meats. We cannot accept a situation whereby restrictions are placed on the movement of these products to any part of the United Kingdom, in this case Northern Ireland.
The removal of a so-called cliff edge on 1 January will be welcomed by many but more work will be required to ensure that we can maintain free flowing business supply lines from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. The adoption of an effective scheme to do away with most tariffs for goods incoming to Northern Ireland is an important development and demonstrates that common sense has partially triumphed to ensure the GB to NI supply routes are not the victim of batty bureaucracy insisted upon by out of touch Brussels elites. On other aspects and issues on the flow of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland it remains to be tested whether in practical terms these arrangements are workable.
The demands of some elements in the EU for a permanent presence in Belfast have been resisted and while we do not support the concept of any EU staff being required in Northern Ireland it is a matter for the UK Government to ensure these personnel are observers and not empowered to direct matters that are the operational responsibility of the United Kingdom authorities.
Ultimately we will test and judge all these issues on the basis of how they operate in practice and whether they deliver the unfettered access we were promised as far back as the Joint UK EU Report of December 2017. There will need to be further urgent work undertaken by the UK Government to deliver for Northern Ireland, particularly on those matters where a final outcome has not yet been secured. The Government needs to be bold and where necessary be prepared to act unilaterally to bring about those outcomes that underpin our full place in the most important internal market for us – that of the UK.
In the coming period, and in the aftermath of Covid-19, it is important that we work to strengthen Northern Ireland’s economic position and help bolster our competitive position. This will be difficult in light of aspects of the overbearing clauses of the Northern Ireland Protocol but we are committed to working with our business and industry representatives to help them as we collectively rebuild. In that context the Government and HMRC has a special responsibility to ensure both SPS checks, and other processes, are minimal and do not impact to the point of increased prices for local consumers.
These arrangements flowing from the protocol are of course temporary, in that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have the opportunity to revisit the protocol and vote upon it in four years time. We would remind all those involved, and the European Union specifically, that unless arrangements have the support of both unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland they will ultimately fail and on that basis it is imperative that on-the-ground implementation does not in any way disadvantage the people of Northern Ireland or our place within the UK market.