The comments came during a session of the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee today – a mixed-party group of peers who examine issues affecting the Union.
Sir Jeffrey accused the EU of using the “sledgehammer” of the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol to smash a “nut”.
It comes less than a week after the EU’s main Brexit figure is Maros Sefcovic, a former communist who is now president of the European Commission, visited Northern Ireland.
During his trip, Mr Sefcovic had said: “A renegotiation of the protocol – as the UK Government is suggesting – would mean instability, uncertainty and unpredictability in Northern Ireland...
“I also need to be honest: while we will continue looking for solutions to minimise the effects of Brexit on your everyday lives, we will never be able to remove them entirely – such are the consequences of Brexit and of the choices of the UK Government.”
And then last Thursday Sir Jeffrey drew his own battle lines, threatening to withdraw the DUP from the Province’s government “within weeks” unless there is movement on the protocol.
Sir Jeffrey’s length speech did not contain the words “remove”, “abolish”, “get rid of”, “axe”, “nullify”or “end” when it came to the Protocol.
Instead he spoke of wanting “significant and substantial changes”.
– ‘221-year old law has been breached’ –
Today, appearing via videolink before the House of Lords’ committee, Sir Jeffrey began by saying that “whilst there is strong rhetorical support for the Union from the UK government, at times that doesn’t always follow through in practice”.
He suggested arranging a “constitutional convention” to discuss UK-wide concerns about the future of the Union.
He also set out two specific legal objections to the protocol.
Firstly, he said it breaches Article 6 of the Act of Union 1800 (which promises “subjects of Great Britain and Ireland to be on same footing”).
And secondly, he said it undermines the section of the Belfast Agreement which says “it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.
Sir Jeffrey said: “The consent of the people of Northern Ireland has not been sought for amending Article 6.
“[It has led to] the absurd situation where Northern Ireland companies are being told goods or component parts – being sent from their supplier in GB to the company in Northern Ireland – are in customs, and are sitting in customs for weeks on end!”
As a result “many companies in Britain are now saying it’s not worth doing business in Northern Ireland – it’s just too much hassle”.
– ‘Peace and prosperity are twins’ –
Sir Jeffrey insisted all other issues are now “secondary” to dealing with the Protocol, because restoring Northern Ieland’s place in the union “is the wish of the majority in Northern Ireland”.
He questioned why there was ever a need for something like the Protocol in the first place, given that the Common Travel Area (a long-standing agreement between the UK and Republic of Ireland) basically guarantees people can move from one jurisdiction to another without hindrance.
“The goods that flow across the Irish border represent a tiny, tiny proportion of overall EU trade,” he said.
“The risk to the EU single market is miniscule.
“And yet the EU has brought forward this sledgehammer, if I may use that description [for] the protocol, to crack what is effectively a nut – a tiny amount of trade.”
He repeated that he wants neither a hard sea border or a hard land one, but added: “If its possible to [avoid] it with the movement of people, why on Earth is it not possible to do it with the movement of goods?
“It has the potential to drag us backwards.
“And if the EU in particular are serious about protecting he agreements, about protecting political stability in NI, I think they need to – if I may say so – rise above their sense of regret (I’ll put it no stronger than that) that the UK has left the EU and stop using Northern Ireland as a political football. “It is a dangerous game.
“The delicate constititional balance... is too fragile.
“Peace and prosperity are twins. If we are to build the peace process in Northern Ireland prosperity is part of that.
“And right now our economy is being harmed by this protocol.”
But whilst he complained of the rupturing of ties between NI and GB, Sir Jeffrey also said that he favours closer ties with the Republic of Ireland in certain respects too.
The British-Irish Council for example was set up by the 1998 Agrement.
Whilst it does not directly give the Dublin government influence over policy in Northern Ireland, the council give it a guarantee of a forum for discussing issues of mutual interest with the UK government.
Specifically, the council says it exists to “promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands”.
It is made up of representatives of the Irish and UK governments, plus Northern Ireland Executive, and governments of Scotland, Wales, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, and Jersey.
It holds two main meetings per year, and Sir Jeffrey said that “I’d like to see it meet more often... there is much wider scope for co-operation”.
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