All sides should “compromise” on the Northern Ireland protocol to restore devolved government to the North, former British prime minister John Major has said.
“A statesmanlike response would be to recognise that nobody is going to get everything they wish, but to accept compromise in the interest of returning democratic government to Northern Ireland,” Mr Major said.
He was deeply critical of the Northern Ireland protocol and the way it was handled by the British government, describing it as a “mess” and “very poorly negotiated”, and said he was “baffled as to how we could have reached a situation where that protocol was accepted. One minister, I think, said … the UK signed the protocol on the basis it would be reformed. That must be the first agreement in recorded history in which it was signed by people who decided it was useless in the first place.”
Responding to threats
He added that “headline after headline” which suggested the British government would unilaterally override parts of the protocol was “a strange way to proceed”.
“We, the British, would not respond to threats of that sort. Why do we think that the European Union would? It is an unwise way to proceed if you want to get agreement.”
Mr Major said it appeared progress was being made in the negotiations between the EU and UK and there was a “growing degree of understanding” on “how to move forward” with the protocol.
He emphasised there was “no such thing as a perfect protocol that will have every side dancing in the streets with joy. That is not going to happen” but warned that without agreement there would either be “continuing disruption in Northern Ireland … or, heaven forbid, direct rule, which we certainly don’t wish to see. I think that would be a grave setback if we had to revert to that.”
Mr Major, who was British prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997, was giving evidence on Tuesday to the Northern Ireland affairs committee at Westminster on the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement.
The Downing Street Declaration, published by Mr Major and the then taoiseach Albert Reynolds is regarded as paving the way for peace talks which led ultimately to the signing of the agreement in 1998.
The North has been without a fully-functioning Executive or Assembly for a year. The DUP has refused to re-enter the political institutions until its concerns over the protocol — that part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing an economic border in the Irish Sea — are addressed.
During his contribution, Mr Major reflected on the significance of the declaration and the talks which followed and gave his assessment of the progress made in Northern Ireland in the decades since. He said people in the North have a “much more normal life than anybody believed was possible in the 1990s”.
However, in economic terms, he said “Northern Ireland was relatively poor. It still is. The economic problems that exist in Northern Ireland are profound. The health problems that exist in Northern Ireland are profound … there is still a huge amount to do. It’s very difficult to bring people together if they are facing hardship.”
The former prime minister said he regretted “so much” that Northern Ireland remained without a functioning government, saying there were “problems quite apart from the peace process, quite apart from the protocol, which are affecting all sorts of aspects of life in Northern Ireland so the sooner we can get the Executive and the Assembly back into action, I think the better it will be for Northern Ireland and indeed for democracy”.
He also indicated it might be time for amendments to be made to the Belfast Agreement, saying that 25 years on there were “one or two questions” that “we might look at again and see how we might possibly make some changes that will improve and look forward”.