Owen Polley: Getting rid of the Northern Ireland Protocol is more important than the return of Stormont

For many years, the people of Northern Ireland had an unspoken contract with their regional politicians.

By Owen Polley
Monday, 16th May 2022, 12:13 am
Updated Monday, 16th May 2022, 12:18 am
The Irish Sea border’s fans were adamant that the election was not about the protocol. Now you see them adding nationalist and Alliance votes, as if that proves a mandate to undermine the Union without need for a border poll
The Irish Sea border’s fans were adamant that the election was not about the protocol. Now you see them adding nationalist and Alliance votes, as if that proves a mandate to undermine the Union without need for a border poll

They would engage in whatever it was they did up at Stormont, while we got on with our lives and ignored them as best we could.

An on-again, off-again assembly made the politicians feel important and stopped one particular party from encouraging violence.

It was costly and achieved almost nothing on its own terms, but it helped keep Northern Ireland relatively stable and peaceful, so we tolerated it.

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With this in mind, the reaction to the DUP’s decision to withhold its nominations for speaker and deputy first minister has been particularly shrill.

Over the past twenty years, the members of this toy town parliament, and the expensive industry of lobbyists and third sector groups that surround them, have clearly convinced themselves that, like Pinocchio, they have become the real thing.

Many of them now tell us, for example, that it is irresponsible to deprive people of a power-sharing government, at a time when the cost of living is rising and the health service is struggling with long waiting lists.

Yet, at the recent election, the parties’ ideas for tackling rising prices mainly consisted of giving voters a one-off, non-means-tested cash payment.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is causing the executive’s sabbatical, drives prices higher and prevents VAT on fuel from being cut. But that, according to the Twitterers, was not what people were concerned about on ‘the doorsteps’.

After more than two decades of devolved government in Northern Ireland, we have the longest waiting times for elective health care in the UK. Indeed, since power-sharing began, in 1998, the only sustained fall in waiting times was during a period from 2002, when we were being ruled directly from Westminster.

The Institute for Government, which researches the effectiveness of government in the UK, noted that, “Health policy in Northern Ireland since devolution has been marked by lack of change.”

Despite health ministers conducting seven major reviews of health and social care that all made similar recommendations, the think tank concluded that “politics (in NI is) the main obstacle to change”.

Perhaps a new executive would shake off this lethargy, implement reform as quickly as possible and dispense with the belief that just a little more money, even if it is not accompanied by a proper plan, will eventually make waiting lists go away.

But you don’t have to be an arch-cynic to suspect that it would continue, like its predecessors, to do nothing. ‘Centralising’ services actually means shutting them down in smaller hospitals and that might be considered unpopular with the public, in the short-term at least, so our politicians won’t do it.

No doubt, the assembly and the executive, plus all the hubris and conceit that go with them, will be back soon enough.

In the meantime, hopes are rising that the government may finally deal with a protocol that has poisoned politics here, disrupted trade and destabilised society.

During the election campaign, the sea border’s fans were adamant that the poll was not about the protocol. Now, though, you frequently see them adding together the nationalist and Alliance votes, as if that proves there is a mandate to undermine the Union without any need for a border poll.

The Belfast Agreement was based on the ‘principle of consent’, which offered people a choice between staying in the UK or opting for an all-Ireland state through an eventual constitutional referendum.

It did not create or envisage a hybrid state, where voters could pick and choose different aspects of sovereignty from London, Dublin or Brussels, but that is increasingly what is being implemented above our heads.

The agreement set up specific power-sharing safeguards that were supposed to prevent the imposition of controversial policy decisions that did not command sufficient cross-community support.

Now though, the interests of the parties that want to destroy Northern Ireland and have it absorbed by the Republic coincide with the aims of politicians who want to tie us closely to the EU, even if that is at the expense of our links with the rest of the UK.

If they pool their resources, they outnumber unionists, so suddenly many of them want to set aside the principles of the agreement and ignore the views of Stormont’s largest bloc.

On a more hopeful note, the government seems, this time, to be serious about rectifying the horrendous error it made when it agreed to the protocol. It will come under sustained pressure from nationalists, the EU and IRA friendly Irish Americans to back down, which it has done many times before.

That may happen again, but this is the moment, if it is in earnest, to put the sea border right and restore Northern Ireland’s full place in the Union. If that happens, then, by all means, bring Stormont back and let a new crop of MLAs share in the illusion that they are doing something useful.

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