Only if implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate way by EU can protocol support the peace process
Northern Ireland’s hundredth year is – like so many in the past – a moment of challenge, of opportunity, and of change.
s all of the UK recovers from the pandemic, Northern Ireland faces its own particular issues, but also brings its own particular strengths to our union.
Northern Ireland makes a huge economic and cultural contribution to our common endeavour as a country after Brexit, whether through its thriving tech sector, its world-leading green industries, or its outstand-ing arts and academic community.
The achievements of recent years have been based on the progress enshrined in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Protecting that agreement is this Government’s top priority. Our actions will always support it and we have no doubt all our friends and allies with an interest in Northern Ireland see things in the same way.
That is why we are working hard to support the stability of the Executive, following the election of two new party leaders in recent weeks, and why it is so welcome that, despite recent difficulties, all five parties remain committed to devolved government.
But bringing durable stability to Northern Ireland requires us to deal with current challenges – whether that’s addressing the legacy of the past, ensuring we build back better after the pandemic, or maintaining the best possible relations between UK and Irish Governments. To that end, we look forward to the upcoming British-Irish Council where we can discuss how best to work together on some of these critical issues in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Among the biggest of the issues facing Northern Ireland is the way the Northern Ireland Protocol is currently working. Businesses are still navigating the new trading environment and requirements. Some are doing so successfully and we have both seen the possibilities and the problems in recent weeks. At Foyle Port, the way they are adapting and growing their business, including embracing green technology, is particularly impressive. It brings in huge shipments of bulk products from all over the world, with each usually only requiring a small amount of paperwork and subsequent checks.
In contrast, at Larne, every supermarket lorry from Great Britain carries up to hundreds of different product lines, each with their own documents, which the EU would want to see subject to checks, even when all the products are clearly destined for consumers in Northern Ireland. We have both heard about the delays and complexity this introduces, and the concerns that issues such as this have produced for unionism more broadly.
These problems really matter. The Protocol ultimately depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Its explicit purpose is to support the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It is with that overarching goal of stability in mind that the rules must be applied.
When we took action to avoid immediate disruption to lives and livelihoods in Northern Ireland in March – by extending existing grace periods for some requirements – the EU made clear that long-term solutions could still be found. We have remained focussed on intensive discussions since then and have put forward options to solve the current impasse.
We are acutely aware of the time constraints. Some issues are becoming urgent once again – in particular, avoiding any disruption in access to medicines or to the movement of chilled meat products from Great Britain. It has been reported that EU officials are now looking seriously at alternative options for medicines. Although we have not heard of these options directly, we welcome it, and we hope that such pragmatism will also be applied to other areas of concern, such as customs and food regulations.
A meeting of the UK-EU Joint Committee is scheduled next week to take stock. We urge the EU to work with us to embrace a common sense approach, focused on genuine problems, not on mitigating against risks that don’t exist. Only if implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate way can the Protocol support the peace process and ensure the people of Northern Ireland continue to see the benefits of prosperity and stability. If it does not do this, then it is not working.
Let us work to keep Northern Ireland on the positive path of recent years. History has shown that pragmatism and compromise can deliver results – but only if they engage with, rather than avoid, the underlying problems. We urge all who want Northern Ireland to succeed to work with us towards this bright future.
Brandon Lewis is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Lord Frost is the UK Brexit Minister
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