Having won a confidence motion within the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson must now make good the commitments he gave to the people of Northern Ireland by restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the UK Internal Market and dealing with the Union dismantling Northern Ireland Protocol.
Let’s remember, the Protocol was imposed upon Northern Ireland despite being opposed by every elected unionist MLA and MP. There was no cross-community support. Progress is only made in Northern Ireland with the support of both communities. Indeed, the recent election has strengthened the hand of unionists to oppose the Protocol. Our manifesto was put to the people and a mandate secured.
The Protocol threatens our place in the United Kingdom, endangers jobs for our people, drives up costs for customers and reduces choice on our shelves. 14,981 (93%) of the 16,032 local businesses that purchase goods from GB are small or micro businesses. These firms are being disproportionately disadvantaged by the present arrangements.
The Government has committed to legislate to deal with the Protocol. Such commitments are good but ultimately the effect of the legislation is what really matters.
Last July, I set our seven tests against which any legislation will be judged. Our tests are not grounded in a unionist wish list, but in promises that have already been made in one form or another, to the people of Northern Ireland. I do not believe that it is too much to ask that the Government stands over those promises.
A year ago, Brussels said, ‘no renegotiation’ and Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party were calling for the Protocol’s ‘rigorous implementation’. The fact that all sides have at long last accepted that the Protocol is flawed, is progress. It is unfortunate that I had to cease operating the political institutions before Dublin and Brussels fully recognised the lack of cross community support.
Over the last fifty years, if we have learnt anything in Northern Ireland it is that if our political arrangements are to last then they require support from right across the community. That is why former Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the protocol a ‘bad deal’ and both he and Lord Trimble have spoken of the risk that it now presents to the future of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
For context, the NI Protocol was created by the European Union to protect its single market for goods, yet the EU has failed to publish credible evidence of goods intended for the Northern Ireland market illegally entering or damaging its single market. That is because there is no serious or tangible threat to the European Union from trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which amounts to only 0.02% of EU GDP.
In the aftermath of the Protocol taking effect, major supermarket retailers announced difficulties supplying hundreds of items into stores in Northern Ireland. This had led to reduced choice for local consumers. More worrying still is that the Chief Executives of affected retailers, including Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Tesco UK, ASDA and Co-operative Group have expressed concern surrounding the long-term sustainability of Northern Ireland’s grocery market. Furthermore, the added costs created by the protocol of transporting goods from GB to NI, estimated at some 27% increase in year one of its operation, is contributing significantly to driving up the cost of living in Northern Ireland for all households. Bizarrely, the protocol also inhibits the ability of the UK Government to offer support to hard pressed households affected by the resultant increase in the cost of food and other products.
On 18 May 2022, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland confirmed that it was aware of 130 retailers, based in Great Britain, who were no longer delivering to Northern Ireland. This figure does not take account of online marketplaces and therefore is expected to be higher.
Independent reports authored by economists at the University of Ulster and University of Strathclyde have estimated that the cost of the Protocol per annum is currently between £800m and £1bn. They have concluded that ‘under no reasonable circumstances’ could access to the EU market lead to a full compensation of the loss of GDP caused by the introduction of Protocol restrictions.
The Protocol has also created a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Laws can be devised, debated and imposed on Northern Ireland by the EU without direct or meaningful representation from our devolved legislature or national parliament. Regulation without representation would not be tolerated in any other part of the United Kingdom. It should not be tolerated in Northern Ireland. The DUP is seeking the restoration of democratic decision making.
As a British citizen by birth, the Protocol represents an unwarranted attack on the rights and identity of those in Northern Ireland who cherish and value membership of the United Kingdom. Article 6 of the Acts of Union requires that everyone in the United Kingdom is entitled to the same privileges.
Research conducted by the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland between January and June 2021 found that over two thirds (68%) have experienced UK online retailers no longer delivering to NI; nearly two thirds (65%) have experienced delayed delivery of goods from GB online retailers and nearly a third (29%) have been charged customs related fees for parcels coming from GB. Yes, customs fees to move a product from one part of the United Kingdom to another.
Whilst the Prime Minister will argue that he has restored confidence in his leadership after the 1922 Committee vote, he must use this opportunity to deal with the NI Protocol once and for all. There is a great prize if this can be got right. The prize will be stable devolution in Northern Ireland.
All we want is the Protocol replaced by arrangements that restore our place within the United Kingdom and can command the support of Unionists as well as Nationalists. That is not an unreasonable request. Free and unfettered trade within the United Kingdom is not an excessive demand, it is the right of every citizen.
If the Protocol is not resolved, then Northern Ireland will be without a devolved government. The restoration of power-sharing based upon a cross-community consensus rests with the Government. It is not sustainable to spend £1m per day subsidising businesses to assist with Protocol paperwork. This money would be better used to fund pressures in our hospitals and helping hard pressed households with the cost of living. It is unjustifiable to preach the need for consensus politics but then foist a Protocol upon Northern Ireland which unionists reject.