Frost replacement will ‘need to find solutions’ to make Northern Ireland protocol work

Head of NI retail group says ‘we need stability and we need certainty’

The resignation of the UK Brexit minister David Frost prompted calls in the North on Sunday from politicians and business leaders for stability and certainty over the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Deputy First Minister said that whoever replaces Lord Frost will “need to find solutions” to make the protocol work and that “pragmatic solutions” must be found.

Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Michelle O’Neill said Lord Frost had “negotiated Brexit and he has worked to undermine it every day since.

“I am less concerned about what is going on in the Tory party and the dismay and the disruption,” she said.

“What I am more concerned about is that the protocol is made to work, that pragmatic solutions are found, that certainty and stability is achieved for all of our business community here who have been left high and dry in terms of uncertainty because of the uncertainty because of the Brexit mess.

“David Frost will be replaced by another minister and whoever that minister is, they need to find solutions, work with the EU, make the protocol work and provide that certainty and stability that is desperately required,” Ms O’Neill said.

The director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Aodhán Connolly, echoed that call, saying he had got on “very well” with Lord Frost but said that “for Northern Ireland, again we need stability and we need certainty.

“We need a calm and smooth transition so that in 2022 we can build on progress made,” he said.

The announcement of a solution on Friday regarding the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland, he said, was evidence that “when both sides work together, progress can be made.

“We don’t need somebody to come in acting like a bull in a china shop,” he said. The negotiations “are the only show in town” and must continue.

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI said that with “critical talks to sort out real problems with customs and the movement of food, plants and animals” due to resume in the New Year the timing was “poor.”

“The negotiators in the rooms need political direction to actually negotiate rather than them and all of us helping bring a new Minister up to speed. We don’t have that time to waste,” he said.

Mr Kelly said Lord Frost had “spent time with business to understand the issues as well as adding some of his own, specifically the role of the EUs Court of Justice, but what he was told and what he heard and relayed didn’t always align.”

His replacement, he said, could prove a chance “for a change of tone, culture and negotiating approach which is more likely lead the success which firms and families need.”

The DUP and other unionist parties in Northern Ireland are opposed to the protocol because they argue it causes difficulties for trade and the supply of goods and undermines the North’s constitutional position as part of the UK.

The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has repeatedly threatened to collapse the power-sharing institutions by withdrawing his ministers from Stormont unless satisfactory progress is made and the Irish Sea border removed.

In a statement issued late on Saturday following Lord Frost’s resignation, Mr Donaldson reiterated this stance and said his departure “raises more serious questions for the prime minister and his approach to the Northern Ireland protocol.”

He said the DUP wished Lord Frost well and had “enjoyed a strong relationship with him and his team.”

However said he UK government was “distracted by internal strife, and Lord Frost was being frustrated on a number of fronts”.

However the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said it was "telling" that in Lord Frost's resignation letter he "failed to make even a cursory mention of Northern Ireland.

“The truth is that his approach to the negotiations over the operation of the protocol were aggressively influenced by narrow ideology, almost always at odds with the needs and wishes of people and businesses on this island,” he said.

Mr Eastwood said the negotiations over the protocol "cannot become a victim to the chaos at the heart of government in London" and Lord Frost's resignation was an "opportunity to reset the approach to the dialogue with the European Commission, to refresh the relationship with the EU and to return to the solutions that are presented to these challenges in the Good Friday Agreement."

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, Doug Beattie, said it was important a new lead negotiator was put in place "quickly who understands the issues that need to be dealt with."

Mr Beattie said protocol negotiations were at a "critical juncture" and what was needed were "solutions that remove the Irish Sea border and fully respect Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.

He said “Northern Ireland cannot be the collateral damage due to the instability within the Boris Johnston Government yet again.”

The leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), Jim Allister, said he suspected Lord Frost’s resignation had “more to do with the protocol than Covid or government direction thereon” and said it was the “failure of the DUP to carry through on its threat” to collapse Stormont which had given the UK government “room to wobble”.

He said Lord Frost’s departure “adds urgency to the DUP making good on its threat by ending the dither and forcing the Prime Minister to choose: Stormont or protocol.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times