In Northern Ireland, signs of hope are finally emerging on protocol impasse

Businesses note a pragmatism emerging but are dismayed Stormont deadlock could continue until next Easter after possible visit by US president

Stuart Anderson’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing all summer.

In April, the lawyer started his new job overseeing public affairs at the powerful business organisation, NI Chamber of Commerce, becoming the key point of contact for UK and European Union officials on all things protocol for industry. Despite Stormont’s collapse and the publication of the controversial UK government Bill to scrap parts of the post-Brexit trade deal in June, communication lines opened that hadn’t existed before.

“Actually, at the moment there’s an endless lists of requests to meet the business community from all kinds of policymakers; from member states and a lot of the actors in the process,” says Anderson in relation to his other role as convener of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, a high-profile lobby group set up in 2019.

“I do think over the course of the summer there has been a change in the mood music.

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“We’ve had continued detailed dialogue with both the UK government and the EU commission throughout the summer months and early autumn. We’ve had a lot of engagement with officials, particularly within the Department for Foreign Affairs in Dublin, and have plans to meet again in the coming weeks and months, in the lead up to Christmas.”

Nervousness remains in the sector as “we were here last year”, adds Anderson.

“We put out a statement in the summer saying that both sides in this climate have a responsibility to reach agreement. We talked about the how the NI consumer should be at heart of it.

“There was discussion around article 16 being triggered, and we welcome that there hasn’t been any escalation. I think that’s a really important point to drive home. There hasn’t been any escalation in all that’s going on around the wider political and economic level.

“Even the language is more pragmatic.”

The North has been without a functioning government since May’s Assembly elections as the DUP has boycotted its formation until its protocol concerns are dealt with. The Bill is now before the House of Lords for scrutiny, having passed through the final stage in the House of Commons in July despite attempts by the SDLP, Alliance and Labour MPs to dilute it.

An October 28th deadline to restore the Executive has been set by Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris — he is obliged to order a pre-Christmas election if it is not met — but it emerged last week the deadlock could continue until next Easter to coincide with a state visit by US president Joe Biden marking the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. The development came to light following a meeting between UK prime minister Liz Truss and Biden in New York.

One Stormont source described the relaxation of the UK’s deadline for a “big, back slapping, well done all 25th anniversary party” as “pretty shameful”.

“The implication is that it’s a big pretend reunion for the Tories with the intention of getting Biden over. I think that would be unbelievably cynical to allow the DUP to keep Stormont down during a cost-of-living crisis. The truth is, there is a package that they could agree on; that London, with the right will, could sell.

“Presumably London want the protocol off their desk now. But part of the issue with Truss is, I don’t think she gives a damn either way. The protocol was useful for her and probably helped in the leadership contest.

“At one point when she took over from [UK Brexit negotiator David] Frost at the beginning of the year, she looked like she was doing to do a deal with Brussels.

“Then a deal didn’t come quickly so it suited her to be really strident. Now I can’t see it’s in her interests to have any further confrontation with the EU given how vulnerable the UK economy is.

“I don’t think she’s thought this through with any great level of strategic acumen.”

A senior Irish Government source said there was a wariness about the UK and described the events of the past few months as a “phoney war”. He told The Irish Times: “But the mood in the room is better. We now need to get into negotiations and some actual work behind closed doors.”

Earlier this month, nine Stormont MLAs — including a DUP delegation — travelled to Brussels for round table discussions with MEPs in the European Parliament. Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave a keynote speech.

Senior EU, UK, and Irish officials addressed the group and a dinner was held with senior figures including the commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič. Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews organised the event.

“It was clear to me that both sides were trying to make space for recommencing discussions by acts of forbearance — on the EU side to not necessarily accelerate the infringement proceedings in the European Court of Justice, and then on the UK side to not accelerate the passage of the protocol Bill in the House of Lords,” says Andrews.

“But until we know where Liz Truss is going with this I don’t think we’re going to be able to predict with any certainty an outcome. The business about her admitting there would be no UK/US trade deal was significant.

“For a long time, US politicians were constantly saying that they won’t do any trade deal until the protocol is resolved — that’s gone now. There’s certainly space and fertile ground in October, after the Tory Party conference and before the decision to go for the elections again in the North.”

For SDLP Assembly member and leader of the Opposition, Matthew O’Toole, the prospect of a December election would be a “massive failure of politics”.

“The normalisation of politics here to have another election and the inevitability about it is totally dysfunctional. My view is that it should be much more unthinkable that some people are flirting with the idea.”

O’Toole, a former Whitehall civil servant, was scathing of the reported extension of the UK deadline until next April for the Biden visit.

“Liz Truss has allowed this deadline to happen, which is ridiculous. You can’t have seven months with no government.

“The fact they’re putting that out there as a public date is, from my perspective, shocking, because it’s conceding there shouldn’t be a government during the worst cost-of-living emergency in our lifetime.

“I think trust would be so badly damaged.”

For Anderson and the business community, there is an opportunity to resolve the crisis.

“However, we need to learn from the failure of the past 12 months in terms of process and defining what it is we’re trying to do. Because if we fail to do that, how many more opportunities are we going to have?”