Peter Robinson: The story has moved on from the problems of the DUP to the problem of the Northern Ireland protocol

In the belief and fond hope that the DUP have steadied the ship and in the knowledge that Sir Jeffrey has set out an attractive stall for the future by focusing on strengthening the Union and improving peoples’ lives, I feel the story has moved on.

By Peter Robinson
Friday, 2nd July 2021, 10:56 am
Updated Friday, 2nd July 2021, 11:18 am
Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, writes for the News Letter every other Friday
Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, writes for the News Letter every other Friday

The story is no longer about the internal struggles of the DUP it is about the issues their new leader has identified.

When it comes to strengthening Northern Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain and improving the lot of people living here the immediate obstacle is the same. The Northern Ireland Protocol is the problem.

The answer will not be found in grace period extensions, nor indeed in easements and flexibilities it can only be found in the return of unfettered trading between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – in both directions.

The Belfast high court ruling that the Act of Union is amended should be accepted by Boris Johnson, who should fundamentally change the protocol

That is the main barrier to the economic wellbeing of all of us who live here. Nobody, unionist or nationalist, producer or consumer, business owner or worker is disadvantaged by full access to the UK internal market.

All of us will be better off and Northern Ireland becomes a better location for investment. Those who argue in favour of the protocol should not close their minds to better alternatives. Why some politicians rant against those of us who are seeking better terms defies understanding.

Please tell me why the EU should be involved or impose restrictions on goods brought from Great Britain for use in Northern Ireland which are not proceeding as through-traffic to the Republic? Frankly it should be none of their business. It only becomes their business if goods from Great Britain intending to enter the EU use Northern Ireland as the route of entry.

Don’t tell me there are not a dozen better ways to secure this objective than the complicated, restrictive and constitution-altering procedures set out in the protocol.

Only a few within the growing ranks of those who oppose the protocol take the position that Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit era, sharing as it does, a land border with an EU state, does not require arrangements to be put in place to deal with the movement of goods and people. Call it a protocol, call it whatever you like, I really do not care. It is the content of those arrangements that matter. It is how it impacts on our lives and on our national identity that is the key.

However, even if the trade issue is satisfactorily resolved, the protocol also presents a constitutional and democratic danger to Northern Ireland.

While the removal of the Sea Border checks and restriction between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would remove the important aspect of Northern Ireland being treated differently, detrimentally and distinctly, other elements of the protocol would still leave Northern Ireland subject to foreign laws and regulations made outside the UK over which they have no meaningful role or representation and for which the people who live here, and who will be subject to those laws and regulations, can make no-one accountable. Why some of our politician desire and advocate becoming Euro-surfs is beyond me. One certainty is that when the next EU blooper is made, and Northern Ireland is suffering as a result, they will take no responsibility for the servitude they have sold us into.

They will not be holding up their hands and taking the blame.

Unionist leaders need to look at all significant changes being made relating to Northern Ireland and make them subject to a doctrine once advocated to the decision-makers of the SDLP by the late Seamus Mallon – “Does this serve the interests of the Union or Unity”. When I set out to check that this was nationalist doctrine in the 1980s I discovered it quoted in a Report sent to a range of Irish Officials by David Donoghue of the Republic’s Department of Foreign Affairs. In what was headed “SECRET – Meeting with Alex Attwood … 21 September 1985”, Donohue quotes Attwood as saying, “Mallon tries to boil down every issue to the simple question, “does this serve the interests of the Union or unity?”

Interestingly, that same document published by “National Archives Ireland” refers to a meeting between Attwood and John Hume which was also attended by Adrian Colton a young SDLP lawyer. The same Adrian Colton – now elevated as Mr Justice Colton – hit the headlines with his ruling on the legal challenge to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Justice Colton, correctly in my view (see my column on December 18, ‘We must make Northern Ireland function as best we can while winning support for the Union’), held that the Protocol overrides Article 6 of the Act of Union.

While I would contend other conclusions reached by Mr Justice Colton might be considered less sound and should be the subject of an appeal, this aspect of his ruling must be considered by HMG as the final confirmation of the unacceptability of the protocol. If the government is looking to convince international opinion that fundamental change is needed, this is it.

The prime minister had insisted that the Act of Union was not amended by the protocol. His government’s legal team argued otherwise and now, the court has declared that the protocol has caused constitutional change by overriding Article 6 of that act.

The PM must accept the court’s ruling and make the required changes to reflect his declared position.

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