British ‘don’t get’ how checks on goods into North threatens unionism, MP says

North’s place in EU single market undermines loyalism, Westminster committee told

People in Britain "don't get" how post-Brexit checks on goods between Britain and Northern Ireland undermines the identity of unionists, the chair of Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has said.

Simon Hoare, Conservative MP for North Devon, was responding to remarks by leading loyalist Billy Hutchinson that the Northern Ireland protocol was "a threat to people's Britishness".

Mr Hutchinson, who heads the Progressive Unionist Party, told the committee that loyalism “feels threatened at the moment, feels threatened for a number of reasons”.

The biggest threat, he said, was the North remaining within the European Union single market under the Brexit withdrawal agreement brokered by London and Brussels to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“We are the only region in the UK who is [in the EU single market] and that means all of our economy will be aligned elsewhere and not with the UK, and that is a threat to people’s Britishness,” Mr Hutchinson told MPs.

The former Ulster Volunteer Force leader said the arrangement breaches the principle of consent, enshrined in the Belfast Agreement, and "that is forcing people down a road they don't need to go".

“It seems to be that that principle of consent has been dumped, or at least has been tampered with, to try to scare unionism,” Mr Hutchinson added.

Mr Hoare insisted the regulatory checks at Irish Sea ports were only for goods and not for citizens.

"It is not a border for people, it is merely a regulatory check," he said. "There are a lot of my friends and others who don't get how anybody can identify their sense of national belonging and identity by the customs arrangements that, for example, moves their cornflakes from the Tesco warehouse in Daventry to the Tesco shelf in Belfast, and how people would identify who they belong to and who they identify with as a result of that."

Mr Hoare was adamant there was no constitutional impact from the protocol, which, he said, gives the North a “golden opportunity” to have access to both the EU and UK markets.

British prime minister Boris Johnson, secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, leading Tory party figure Michael Gove and Dublin had all made assurances that the “only way the constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland can be affected, changed or adjusted is through a border poll”, he said.

“Isn’t that assurance that the protocol is not about constitutional assault or challenge, isn’t that enough?” he asked, during a hearing of the committee’s inquiry into the arrangement.

But Mr Hutchinson said, “I’m not sure it is enough.”

“I think it needs to be outlined what happens when we are in the [EU] single market, and what happens when Brexit is done,” he said. “There will still be a border between us and the UK.”

Mr Hutchinson said it was incumbent on the British government to explain to loyalists that if the North remains in the EU single market after Brexit is fully completed “where does that leave people in Northern Ireland in terms of their Britishness”.

“People are thinking ahead about what sort of pressure that puts on them or where it leaves us, and no one has told us,” he said.

Political problem

Mr Hutchinson described the protocol as a “trade deal with the EU” that is “a political problem” and “can only be resolved by political solutions”.

History shows that if there is a political vacuum in the North “it will be filled with violence”, he said, but added: “I don’t think we’ve reached that yet.”

But he said “people are angry” in loyalist communities because they “misunderstand how Brexit is going to play out and people didn’t realise Brexit would have a bigger impact on Northern Ireland than on the rest of the UK”.

“The reality is that it is the UK’s job to actually make sure they are working with the [Stormont] Executive to move forward and make sure it is easier for politicians to argue that there should be no violence,” he said.

Mr Hutchinson said he didn’t accept the “pie in the sky” argument that the North would attract international investment because of its unique access to both the EU and UK markets.

On claims a United States company with offices in the North was worried about its employees during recent loyalist rioting, Mr Hutchinson said: "You need to be very careful talking to me about America. Irish-America funded the death of British citizens across Europe, so we need to remember that as well."

A unionist “convention” was needed to debate the protocol while Dublin and Belfast also needed to sit down and work out how to resolve the issues and present their findings to Brussels, he told the committee.

“Our strategy needs to be done through a convention – I don’t care who calls it and who runs it but I do care that we get on and do that,” he said.

“Unionism needs to be seen as it is in terms of its greatness, and we aren’t being seen like that. We are constantly behind the eight ball. We need to push the eight ball out of the way and talk about how wonderful we are.”