In October 2019 the British government reached a remarkable, indeed unprecedented, agreement with the EU, enshrined in the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. It was that we would control the circulation of certain goods within our own country, in the interests both of the overriding goal of supporting the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and of protecting the EU’s single market.
The rules by which we do this are set by EU law. Nevertheless, given the extraordinary nature of this agreement, and the delicate political situation, we expected to be able to administer them sensitively in practice. We assumed that the requirements to facilitate trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and to try to avoid checks and controls at Northern Irish ports, both spelt out in the protocol, would be meaningful. We expected that the protocol’s injunction to minimise impact on everyday lives in Northern Ireland would be fully reflected. But it isn’t working out like that.
We are trying in good faith to make things work, committing the best part of £500 million (€582 million) to support our traders in working with EU customs rules. But it is precisely because we are trying to operate the protocol that problems are arising for so many people. Pets can’t be moved across the Irish Sea and back. New cancer drugs can’t be licensed for Northern Ireland. There is trade diversion – suppliers in Great Britain are beginning to give up supplying Northern Ireland, or are doing so only at significant and added cost.
All this happens because of the inflexible requirement to treat the movement of goods into Northern Ireland as if they were crossing an EU external frontier, with the full panoply of checks and controls.
Such arrangements can work only if there is genuine cross-community consent for them and if people can see that the commitments to prevent disruption to their lives, or the diversion of trade, are real in practice. But the EU’s attempt in January to use Article 16 of the protocol to put in place a vaccines control at the land border has had a particularly damaging and long-lasting effect on exactly this consent.
Recent polling from LucidTalk shows that a there is a 50/50 split in public opinion in Northern Ireland on the protocol. Opposition is growing, including among many people who are not normally active in political life. That is not a stable basis for the future.
Consent is also fraying because there is a sense that the current arrangements could corrode the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. One of the fundamental aims of the protocol was to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. That, of course, remains essential, but it must be balanced with protecting Northern Ireland’s connections to the rest of the UK and its fundamental place in the UK economy.
Indeed, as we begin our recovery from the catastrophe of Covid, it is worth pausing on just how vital this east-west dimension is, both to the prosperity on which peace depends and to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is vastly more important to Northern Ireland than its trade with Ireland and the rest of the EU – to consumers as well as businesses. In 2018, Northern Ireland purchased five times as many goods from Great Britain as from Ireland. Half of Northern Ireland’s external sales go to Great Britain – less than a fifth to Ireland.
The current process to resolve all these difficulties is not working and risks creating a series of rolling crises as we lurch from one deadline to another. Wednesday’s agreement to extend by three months the right to circulate British sausages and chilled meats in Northern Ireland is welcome, but addresses only a small part of the underlying problem.
In short, a seriously unbalanced situation is developing in the way the protocol is operating. This risks economic harm in Northern Ireland and damage, in turn, to the essential balance within the Belfast Agreement itself.
The way forward is to find a new balance in the way the protocol is operated. We must make a serious effort to do so rapidly.
This new balance has to mean that goods must be able to move as freely as possible within the customs territory of the UK and that goods important to Northern Irish consumers supplied from Great Britain continue to be available. Those are not unreasonable requests. They are entirely normal for every other country in the world and there is no evidence that they would cause any threat to the single market.
The situation is now urgent. The UK and Ireland have a huge, and very direct, interest in finding solutions here. But we need constructive and ambitious discussions with the EU which deal with the actual reality. To simply say “the protocol must be implemented in full” is to take a theological approach that is frozen in time and does not deal with the reality that now exists. If operating the protocol on the current basis is making the situation worse, then how can pressing for an even more rigorous assertion of it make sense? Can it be right that the commitments made in the protocol to protecting the Belfast Agreement and preventing disruption and economic harm are deemed less important than those designed to protect the single market?
We look to find solutions. If that is not possible, we will of course have to consider all our options, because we have an overriding responsibility and obligation to support peace, prosperity and stability in Northern Ireland. Either way, we need to find a way forward, a new balance of arrangements, adapted to the practical reality of what we have seen since January, and based on the common interests we all share.
Lord Frost is UK Brexit minister and Brandon Lewis is UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland