The Northern Ireland protocol is "here to stay" and there is "no question" it promises benefits for trade and business, the latest recruit to the Ulster Unionist Party has declared.
Ian Marshall, the first unionist to be elected to the Seanad but who was not renominated under Taoiseach Micheál Martin, has also called for an Oireachtas committee to sit in Belfast to encourage unionists to join it.
The ex-president of the Ulster Farmers Union also took aim at Brexit architect Dominic Cummings, accusing Boris Johnson's former chief adviser of "ignorance" over Ireland.
On Tuesday, Mr Marshall announced he was joining the Ulster Unionists, under new leader Doug Beattie, after a number of years of standing as an independent unionist.
Speaking to The Irish Times, he said the “logical choice” for his re-engagement with politics in the North would be to run for an Assembly seat in next year’s elections.
While he had yet to decide a constituency with Mr Beattie, he vowed he had no qualms in running against a sitting DUP or other unionist MLA, in a move that could split the unionist vote.
On the protocol, Mr Marshall said it was time to get past all the “errors of judgment” that had been made in the Brexit negotiations.“We are where we are. We have a protocol that is here to stay,” he said.
While the “hard facts on the ground” are it is causing disruption and cost to some businesses – “for some it is minimal and small, for some more serious and it could be a threat to the business” – he said there are also undoubted advantages.
Business and trade
“There can be opportunities here for business and trade. It goes back to the pre-Brexit situation when we had all this access before, but we forfeited that.
"That said, there is no question that if we get a protocol that is acceptable to everyone in Northern Ireland, in the Republic and Great Britain, there are certainly opportunities there, because we can still access both those markets."
However, he warned tensions within unionism about checks and inspections on goods coming over the Irish Sea – to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland while protecting the EU’s single market – need to be addressed.
“Whether it is reality or perception, there is a problem with them,” he said.
Mr Marshall said the Taoiseach’s Shared Island initiative needs to shelve talk of constitutional change and focus on “conversations around trade, business, infrastructure, tourism, education and the health service” if it is to encourage unionists “into an open conversation about the future”.
And, he urged the Oireachtas Committee on the implementation of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement to sit some of the time in Belfast to bring unionists on board.
“It is a committee that sits in Dublin, it never sits in Belfast,” he said. “There is maybe a degree of sensitivities here, that here is a committee that maybe should meet in Belfast as well as Dublin.
“Because then unionists can be encouraged, maybe in a light-touch way, to engage in a softly, softly approach, sitting down together, to be seen to be more inclusive.”
‘Brexit is done’
Unionism needed to “take ownership” of the Belfast Agreement because of the protection mechanisms that are in it and, at the moment, the Oireachtas committee was engaging in a “one-sided conversation”, he said.
On his not being nominated by Mr Martin for re-election to the Seanad last year, Mr Marshall said it was a "missed opportunity" for the Fianna Fáil leader, as he recalled how he found out in a tweet by a journalist.
“A phone call would have been nice,” he said.
Mr Marshall said he “still stands by” his opposition to the UK pulling out of the EU, but “Brexit is done, so we need to accept this and see how we make this work and work for everyone.”
On remarks over recent days on Twitter by chief Vote Leave strategist Mr Cummings that the Belfast Agreement had “f*** all to do with Brussels” and the North should have been a “minor part of negotiations”, Mr Marshall said it wasn’t helpful “someone becoming an expert after negotiations he fundamentally and directly influenced”.
“I see conversations that happen about Northern Ireland by people outside Northern Ireland, who don’t genuinely understand it, who don’t comprehend the subtleties and nuances.
“Dominic Cummings has actually demonstrated there is a degree of ignorance there, where he just doesn’t get it or understand it, or let’s be honest, isn’t remotely interested.”