Jeremy Burchill: Even though pressure is great, unionists must not blink in their opposition to Northern Ireland Protocol

It is no surprise that sinister sources are seeking to pressurise unionists to return to operating the Good Friday Agreement system of government in advance of any amelioration on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

By Jeremy Burchill
Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 1:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 11:08 am
A sign at Larne Harbour, pictured earlier this year, decrying the Irish Sea border and its impact on the Union. Jeremy Burchill has insisted that unionists must not return to Stormont until free trade within the United Kingdom is restored
A sign at Larne Harbour, pictured earlier this year, decrying the Irish Sea border and its impact on the Union. Jeremy Burchill has insisted that unionists must not return to Stormont until free trade within the United Kingdom is restored

These are the self-same sources that are responsible for the creation of the impasse in the first place.

Meanwhile, the EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic participates in the generation of anger and hostility through his mischievous assertion that the Protocol is necessary in order to protect the people of Northern Ireland from “unsafe goods arriving from Britain”, and to ensure that the “public health …. of the people of Northern Ireland is not under threat”. A suitable robust response is awaited from our Government.

At this point when unionism finds itself under maximum pressure unionists must not blink.

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Jeremy Burchill was an Ulster Unionist Assembly Member 1982-86 for East Belfast and a member of the 1975 Constitutional Convention. He now lives in England

Recent comments from the usual suspects, including the Europhile Lord Clarke, the former Secretary of State Lord Hain and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee Simon Hoare, demonstrate that there is a long way to go before the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will reach the statute book with or without amendment. Even should the bill pass into legislative form unamended there is no guarantee that these powers will ever be exercised.

After prorogation of the Northern Ireland Parliament was announced on 24th March 1972 the required legislation received the Royal Assent on 30th March. There is no evidence whatsoever of any such urgency (or indeed any urgency at all) in government circles when it comes to rendering the Protocol innocuous. If the Government were serious about the importance of devolution they would have acted months ago when the Executive collapsed in February. Old cynics like myself must be forgiven for concluding that the government remains focused on kicking the can down the track, whilst the Northern Ireland economy goes down the tubes.

The damage inflicted on the Northern Ireland economy is grave and indisputable. No doubt some individuals, focused on exporting to the EU, derive an advantage from the Protocol. However, everyone loses when restrictions (or prohibitions) are imposed on sourcing domestically-produced items from the mainland. Substitute products obtained from EU sources are inevitably either more expensive or of inferior quality or probably both - if that had not been the case these products would have secured market penetration whilst Northern Ireland remained inside the EU. The result is that the Protocol exacerbates inflationary forces within Northern Ireland.

It is a sad but inescapable fact that the Prime Minster commands little or no trust in Northern Ireland since his original disastrous decision to accept the Protocol after pledging that no prime minister could ever accept an “Irish Sea border”. Where trust is non-existent the concept of “settlement versus payment” is not only a useful precedent to follow, it is in fact essential.

In fact, not only is trust wholly absent but realists recognise that there is every prospect of a change of prime minister before the Government legislation is passed, unless the legislative process is expedited as it should be.

There must be no return to Stormont until the pre-Protocol concept of free and unimpeded trade within the United Kingdom, as enshrined within the Act of Union, is restored. Until then the foundation on which the Good Friday Agreement rests remains negated.

It is unrealistic to hope that the EU can be persuaded to allow free trade within the UK through a process of negotiation. However once free trade is re-established there are numerous ways in which the UK could assist the EU to protect themselves from what they appear to perceive as sub-standard British goods. ANPR systems could be used to monitor the movement of vehicles crossing the border having entered Northern Ireland by sea. In addition the potential of drone usage merits exploration.

For now, the priority for unionists remains the need to work together to identify the weaknesses in the Protocol Bill, to monitor its progress, and to determine how pressure on the government might be ramped up should there remain unnecessary procrastination in putting the Protocol out of its misery. Discussions within unionism to these ends must intensify now.

• Jeremy Burchill was an Ulster Unionist Assembly Member 1982-86 for East Belfast and a member of the 1975 Constitutional Convention. He now lives in England

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