Northern Ireland can expect regular inward investment and jobs announcements over the coming months as companies relocate there because of its unique access to the UK and EU markets, a former Conservative minister has said.
Julian Smith, who was Northern secretary until February of last year, warned politicians opposed to the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol that it is not going anywhere and they should focus on how to improve rather than scrap it.
He urged Stormont politicians to work with multinationals eyeing up the North precisely because of its post-Brexit position, which he forecasts will reap "huge benefits" in the "fullness of time".
“The protocol is not going to go anywhere, so the best course of action is to make sure it is optimised and to do that we need the EU and Dublin to help support the UK in working with the EU,” he said.
“There are big, big opportunities for Northern Ireland coming out of the protocol. The level of inward investment discussions taking place at the moment is really high.”
Unionist leaders have called for the protocol, part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, to be removed because it has created a de facto trade border for some goods moving between the North and Britain.
Irish Sea checks
Checks are being carried out on the Irish Sea to ensure goods coming into the North meet EU standards, so as to protect the EU single market and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Speaking at an online discussion organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), Mr Smith said a lot of the discussion around the protocol makes it seem “as if it is all negative”.
“I see another potential scenario which is that significant improvement will happen to the Protocol in the coming months and significant inward investment comes into Northern Ireland over the coming months,” he said
The North, Mr Smith said, is in a “unique position” as a result of the protocol compared “to any other part of UK to maximise two major markets (Britain and the EU), and I think the opportunity will be taken and I think there will be significant improvements to the protocol”.
“The best thing is for everyone to acknowledge that and work with that and the opportunities that gives which, whatever your political persuasion, I think are significant.”
While it was difficult to put a value on the economic shot in the arm the North can expect, the region’s inward investment agency Invest NI was seeing a “huge uptick” in inquiries from overseas companies looking to set up in the region, he said.
The North’s former justice minister and Independent unionist Claire Sugden told the online event that she hoped to see the “quite considerable issues” with the protocol ironed out over the coming months.
Once this was done, there could be “big investment in Northern Ireland and maybe in four years from now (when the Northern Ireland Assembly votes to review the Protocol) unionists might want to stay in that arrangement because it actually puts us in a better position,” she suggested.
“Who knows?” she added.
Ms Sugden said it was possible to separate the economic benefits of the protocol from the constitutional issues it throws up for unionism. Ultimately, it is a “trade issue” but was giving rise to other concerns around identity particularly among loyalist working class communities, she pointed out.
But this was in the context of people saying a united Ireland is inevitable as a result of the post-Brexit arrangements, amid “a lot of misinformation going around at the moment”.
Contrary to this argument, the prosperity the protocol could deliver may “if anything be an opportunity to strengthen the union”, she said.