Gavin Robinson: DUP set out to remove internal trade border in the Irish Sea – and we’ve achieved exactly that
Our agreement with the government goes further than ever before to undo the damage of the NI Protocol. The arrangements we have secured not only restore but safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and its internal market. Having taken the time to speak with ordinary people, many of whom care deeply about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, I remain convinced that there is broad support, and buy-in, for the package of measures we have delivered.
People deserve - and respect - straight-talking from their elected representatives. Sir Jeffrey and I have had no qualms about saying that this agreement is imperfect. As far as we are concerned, there remains unfinished business but we will have no hesitation whatsoever looking our voters in the eye and telling them, with sincerity, that this was the best deal we could have delivered.
Equally, being honest that we not secured everything we wanted is not an admission that we have failed to fulfil our fundamental objectives. Far from it.
The DUP set out to remove the internal trade border in the Irish Sea and that is exactly what we have achieved. Our detractors argue that this isn’t the case and that the frontier still exists - but what they fail to acknowledge is that the yardstick they are using to measure progress is far different to ours. We have always accepted that checks in place before Brexit should continue and that goods that are proceeding on from Great Britain, through Northern Ireland, to the EU may have different arrangements. That is very different from demanding the removal of any and all barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland - a mantra our opponents espouse.
This dividing line is nothing new. It did not appear out of thin air last Wednesday when this deal was published. Indeed it has existed throughout this process - even as far back as July 2021 when our seven tests were published. For anyone to suggest otherwise is blatant revisionism.
Therefore if this deal has fallen short, it has fallen short of the unattainable, utopian ideals of others, not the tests of our party.
For goods moving between GB and NI and wholly staying in the United Kingdom, we have removed the substance of an internal trade border. The green lane is gone. Not renamed - replaced. There will be a new UK Internal Market System for these goods that are destined for Northern Ireland, with no routine checks - physical or visual - and no requirement for international customs paperwork. The government will provide a permanent guarantee that 80% of goods from GB will pass through this system and an independent monitoring panel established to hold their feet to the fire. In addition to this, through 60 pages of legal changes this party has secured from the EU, a host of products from the rest of the world will now be able to move through the default UK system. This means they will be subject to UK, rather than EU, tariffs and standards and that we can enjoy international trade deals on the same basis as the rest of our country.
All of this, in our assessment, and balanced against the clear parameters of our seven tests, constitutes the removal of the border in the Irish Sea. There will still be a red lane for goods destined for the EU but this is in keeping with the framework of solutions set out in the Protocol Bill - which the DUP supported in Parliament. Any port infrastructure linked to these requirements will be for the primary purpose of checking goods at risk of moving onwards to the EU. We have also ensured there will be no control post built at Cairnryan at all.
Those whose opposition to the new arrangements hinge on the existence of a red lane at all ignore the clear protections we have secured for businesses trading within the UK. The red lane will account for a small proportion of UK internal trade movements and within that only a small subset will contain goods certain to stay in NI. Despite this, we have ensured that any business with a turnover of less than £2m will be exempt entirely from any controls - roughly 80% of all manufacturing and processing companies in NI. Even above that threshold, we have secured complete carve outs for goods used in animal feed, construction, healthcare and the not-for-profit sector.
For some, these protections will not go far enough to sway their assessment of this agreement and I respect their opinion. However it is important that the public can make a judgement based on all of the facts.
We know from talking to business that there is strong support for having access to the EU for their goods in addition to retaining unfettered access to the UK market. That is worth £8bn to our economy every year. That cannot be ignored. For these firms, the red lane is a less complex and less expensive model than operating controls along 300+ miles of a land border.
Crucially, along side a goods guarantee for our products and Great Britain's, in both directions, what we have secured will ensure clear distinction between how the same product originating on either side of the border are treated when they enter Great Britain, even indirectly (via Holyhead). Irish goods will be subject to full controls whereas NI goods will not. So we have ensured that NI businesses have a competitive advantage. This rejects the notion that somehow the operation of a red lane will generate a slow creep toward a so-called all-island economy.
This goes further to restore and future-proof the economic rights of citizens in Northern Ireland under the Acts of Union than simply believing the undeliverable will be delivered. It represents substantial progress - progress that could not have been achieved without the pressure brought to bear by our principled action in withdrawing from the devolved institutions.
I am not content to bin these wins in favour of a strategy of those who have achieved nothing and whose mantra represents nothing more than wishful thinking. We were right to set the bar high in negotiations in order to secure the best possible outcome. As a result we have secured legally binding change which our opponents said would be impossible. Of course, that does not mean we will stop campaigning for further solutions. The government have committed to introducing legislation on veterinary medicines in the spring and protecting supply in all eventualities. We need to see that action coming to fruition.
However, the vast majority of unionists support devolution because they know that fully functioning institutions underpinned by arrangements that both unionists and nationalists can support is the best means of building a more prosperous Northern Ireland. They know the battle for the Union will be won or lost in minds of ordinary people, not in the courtroom. Now that significant progress has been made, the conditions for a return to Stormont have been achieved. Rather than snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it is time for unionism to start setting the agenda.
l Gavin Robinson is deputy leader of the DUP and MP for East Belfast