‘The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill could just be Fool’s Gold – we must not forget the bitter lessons of the 1980s and 90s’ says Sir Reg Empey

As nationalist politicians and the Irish taoiseach issue grave warnings about the government’s Protocol bill, Sir Reg Empey has warned fellow unionists against placing high hopes in it.

Lord Empey said that despite the fiery reaction to it from anti-Brexit quarters, the bill could end up being mere “Fool’s Gold” for those who seek a solution to the Province’s Protocol problems.

On Sunday Taoiseach Micheal Martin had blasted the proposed new law as “unilateralism of the worst kind”, while Michelle O’Neill said it would have “colossal political and economic consequences”.

Sir Reg said that even if the bill becomes law – which is not guaranteed – it will still require political will from the Tories to put its powers into effect.

Sir Reg Empey (background is Fool's Gold by Reilly Butler, Creative Commons)

WHAT IS IN THE BILL?

The Northern Ireland Protocol bill was set before the Commons on June 13.

No date has yet been set for when its second reading will be.

In very basic terms, here is what the government says the bill will do: “It will disapply elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and provide delegated powers to Ministers to make new law in connection with the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairing a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street

Former UUP leader Sir Reg, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the post-Brexit arrangements over the last few years, told the News Letter that unilateral action by the government was a poor substitute for a negotiated deal.

“But it’s equally clear there hasn’t been any serious progress since February and one side’s blaming the other,” he said.

Turning to the bill itself, he noted the comments of Brexiteer businessman Ben Habib in the News Letter last week, when he called it “a con”.

Lord Empey added: “I don’t often agree with him, but there could be an element of Fool’s Gold in this legislation – insofar as it’s full of what we in Parliament call ‘Henry the Eighth clauses’.

“That means it’s got clauses where it gives powers to a minister, but they’re not defined.

“In other words, it’s up to future ministers [who] may do things, or may not do things.

“Yes, it’s unilateral action by the government... however, what happens if Boris Johnson ceases to be in Downing Street?

“Indeed it’s entirely possible a future government could scrap what’s in the Protocol Bill altogether.”

He added: “People latch on to these things. People were running around saying ‘Article 16 – we’ve got to trigger that’ and now the government has kind of abandoned that and we’re onto this legislation.

“But the point I’m making to you is that the legislation, even if it’s enacted, could mean something, or it could mean very little.”

He also stressed that he feels Northern Irish politicians should be involved in direct talks with the EU in future negotiations.

“I think it’s high time our representatives were directly engaged in this,” he said.

“And had they been there at the outset I don’t think we’d have got into the mess we have.

“Unfortunately the Assembly was out of action for three years at the time the bulk of negotiation was taking place – that was a huge loss to NI...

“The one bitter lesson we learned in the 1980s and 90s was the only people you can trust at the table are yourselves.”