We know that this arrangement dismantled important parts of the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not least because that fact was confirmed by a High Court judge. We know too that the main economic barriers, due to divide up the UK, are not yet even in place.
Still, there are people who claim that the protocol’s ‘benefits’ are undeniable.
Last week, for example, the Financial Times used experimental figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), to claim that Northern Ireland was benefitting from the protocol. Soon, this doubtful claim was repeated by many of the Irish Sea border’s keenest proponents on social media.
The newspaper made its assertion in a graph on Twitter captioned “Northern Ireland prospers from the protocol”. This seemed to show that NI had recovered from the economic effects of the Covid pandemic quicker than other parts of the country.
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Even if you were to take these experimental figures literally, they were easily explained by the province’s heavy reliance on the public sector. Indeed, the FT’s full article presented a more nuanced picture, even while it generated social media and graphics promoting a different narrative.
The most bullish expert in the paper’s report claimed only that it was “plausible” Northern Ireland was doing better than other regions. In contrast, Richard Holt, from Oxford Economics, said the province “has a large public sector which has helped to protect its economy”.
We were comparatively insulated from big drops in economic activity that affected the rest of the UK from the end of 2019. Fewer jobs and less productivity came from the private sector, so when businesses struggled, the overall impact was less severe.
It’s true that, statistically, Northern Ireland did relatively well in terms of employment, with more people in work. As the economist Richard Ramsey pointed out, though, a disproportionate share of these gains came from new public sector posts in health and education.
In addition, many self-employed people were forced to give up their businesses during the pandemic and take up payrolled jobs instead. Hardly an unqualified success story. That’s before we consider that, actually, the latest statistics from the ONS showed that Northern Ireland’s economy grew less than the UK average.
That didn’t stop the co-opted nationalist MLA, Matthew O’Toole, from claiming that the evidence that we were ‘outperforming’ other regions under the protocol was “clear and irrefutable”. Actually, it was unclear and refutable that we were doing well, even before you started to look for the reasons.
The creative talents of Irish Sea border fans were called upon again when a study by the Fraser of Allander institute at the University of Strathclyde concluded that ‘trade frictions’ between GB and NI were having “a significantly negative impact on the Northern Ireland economy”.
Importantly, the research looked at how ‘non tariff barriers’, ie. new checks and paperwork for trade with the rest of the UK, will affect people’s wages and purchasing power. The institute calculated that the protocol’s features will slash real wages by 3.9% and cause a 2.5% decrease in consumption (the overall amount that we spend on goods and services).
To my knowledge, this is the first serious attempt to quantify the damage that the sea border will do to our standard of living. Immediately, though, the protocol’s defenders were back at work, claiming that the study revealed the costs of Brexit, rather than Northern Ireland’s particular arrangements.
Of course, it was focussed specifically on the effects of checks and paperwork between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And, if the protocol worked as its apologists say it should, then this province would be impacted much less by Brexit than the rest of the UK.
The study’s authors stated definitively, “there appears to be no evidence that the protocol allows Northern Ireland to enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’.”
Despite the propaganda, the weight of research suggests that the Irish Sea border is overwhelmingly a bad thing for this province’s economy. But, it’s important to emphasise that even if the protocol offered an economic advantage it would still be entirely unacceptable, because it detaches us from the rest of the UK and disrupts our politics and society.
Some big businesses and importer/exporters think the current arrangements will make them money. Be in no doubt, though, this will be at the expense of consumers and the vast majority of small and medium sized enterprises. Their interventions weaken the government’s position as it tries to dismantle the most damaging aspects of the protocol.
Northern Ireland will always be better off as a full and inseparable part of the UK. Our place in the Union cannot be bought or sold. And the value of the UK will never be measured by a company’s profit and loss account.
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• Dr Paul Kingsley Dec 2: Magee has courses not on offer elsewhere yet Protestants are under-represented
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• Ruth Dudley Edwards Nov 30: It is superficial to blame religion for the NI Troubles
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