David Trimble: Tear up the Northern Ireland protocol to save the Belfast Agreement
The withdrawal agreement protocol ignores the fundamental principle of consent
A unionist sign protesting against the Northern Ireland protocol is seen in Larne town centre. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The Northern Ireland protocol agreed by UK prime minister Boris Johnson as he struggled to get a Brexit deal in time for the 2019 general election is already leading to problems. Not only does it shatter Northern Ireland’s constitutional relationship with the UK, but it also is damaging our fragile economy.
The disruption to trade has been well documented. Empty supermarket shelves are evident as some food imports are prevented from entering Northern Ireland from Britain. Customs declarations are required for personal online purchases from Britain for everything from clothes to ink cartridges. Horticultural trade by retailers and personal orders worth hundreds of millions of pounds every year have virtually stopped. Petty rules have been enforced by European Union inspectors who oversee the work of UK officials at Northern Ireland ports – to the extent that used machinery has been turned away if there is soil in the treads of the tyres. Some businesses have been waiting weeks for supplies of parts.
The Spectator describes the situation well: “The protocol was meant to simultaneously protect the single market and the peace process. . . It is hard to think shipping a couple of roses from Great Britain to a gardener in Ballymena is a threat to the single market, yet the current rules make it tricky. If the gardener ordered roses from Dublin, though, they would arrive without a problem . . . Greater friction in trade with Great Britain in goods for merely personal use may be considered a long-term threat to peace and stability. It is already causing uproar among dismayed unionists”
The rational response to this might have been for the EU to have modified the protocol and to have stuck firmly to the text of the Belfast Agreement, but that text has been ignored. Instead, EU officials now declare that there can be no change and that it is the protocol that is protecting the agreement and keeping the peace.
This false mantra of protecting the Belfast Agreement and keeping the peace in Northern Ireland has become the shield behind which the EU, the Irish Government, nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, UK politicians, and even US president Joe Biden hide behind when challenged about the damage to democracy and the economy in Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. They believe, by invoking the hard-won agreement that I helped negotiate 23 years ago, they can justify the indefensible attack on the rights and livelihood of all Northern Ireland citizens that the unprecedented and unreasonable protocol requirements impose on the part of the UK in which I live.
But rather than the protocol protecting the Belfast Agreement, the fact is it is pulling it apart. I fear that tensions are once again starting to rise. We have already seen the threats to inspectors at ports in Northern Ireland. The democratic mandate of the Stormont parliament has been called into question. People’s livelihoods and the economy of Northern Ireland are reeling from the protocol’s pettifoggery.
If the genuine grievances and resentments caused by the protocol are not addressed politically, then there is real potential for those who have engaged in past violence to take action again into their own hands. As someone who loves my country, and made real personal and political sacrifices to bring peace and normality to it, I implore my own government, the Irish Government and the EU to stop playing fast and loose with the hard-won arrangements in the Belfast Agreement.
My primary objection to the protocol is that it changes fundamentally the constitutional relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The laws that will apply to the economy, the environment, agriculture, workers rights, and regulations covering everything from building standards to use of weedkillers, no longer will be made at our parliament in Westminster or the local Assembly in Belfast. They will instead be determined by a foreign authority in Brussels.
The protocol lists 70 pages of EU laws to which Northern Ireland must adhere. This amounts to tens of thousands of separate regulations. In addition, all future EU laws on which no one in the UK or Northern Ireland is able even to discuss – let alone vote on – will apply to Northern Ireland. Moreover, they will be enforceable by the European Court of Justice. This amounts to a seismic and undemocratic change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and runs contrary to the most fundamental premise in the Belfast Agreement.
It is perfectly possible to address the concerns of the EU while ensuring the constitutional integrity of the UK
As someone who, along with the late John Hume, negotiated the agreement, I recognised the significant compromises it contained, which caused great disquiet in the unionist community that I represented. If these compromises were to be made acceptable, then the central pillar of the agreement had to be the need for democratic consent to any change in the constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland. We had endured 35 years of a bitter terrorist conflict perpetrated by those who believed that by terrorising the Northern Ireland population, bombing prime targets in Britain and killing soldiers and police officers they could force Northern Ireland out of the UK.
They didn’t succeed and the whole point of the Belfast Agreement was to bring that terrorism to an end and present a democratic way forward that would enable both unionists and nationalists to pursue their aspirations and objections peaceably and democratically. That is why the very first clause of the agreement states: “It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for that purpose.”
And the second clause is clear: “it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.
Thus, the Northern Ireland protocol ignores the fundamental principle of consent. Northern Ireland is no longer fully part of the UK – it has been annexed by the EU and is subject to EU laws and an EU court without any right of dissent. I personally feel betrayed by this. I made huge personal and political sacrifices to persuade the people of Northern Ireland of the Belfast Agreement’s benefits. The party that I led at that time also suffered electorally because we made difficult trade-offs.
The unionist population, especially, was asked to swallow unpalatable compromises in order to reach an agreement, which eventually brought an end to the terrorist campaign. They did so because I was able to argue that their position as citizens of the UK was safeguarded by the commitment that they would have the final say over any change in the status of Northern Ireland. I fully expected the British and Irish governments, which were cosignatories to the Belfast Agreement, to honour that promise. But they have broken it; indeed, the Northern Ireland protocol wilfully tears it up. Not only do I personally feel betrayed, but the majority unionist population in Northern Ireland feel betrayed too.
The UK and Irish governments went even further in their renunciation of the safeguards in the Belfast Agreement by changing the voting mechanism to safeguard “all sections of the community”. Under the heading of ‘Safeguards’, the agreement stipulates that “key decisions are to be taken on a cross-community basis”. Nothing could be more “key” than the demands made in the Northern Ireland protocol. Yet, any vote on them is held back for four years and, when a vote eventually is taken, the cross-community safeguard will not be applied.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic has arrogantly declared that, despite this economic havoc, there can be no change or flexibility in the application of the protocol. The truth is that the EU applies its trade rules more rigorously to Britain/Northern Ireland than they are applied at its own ports. The figures for January show that there were 36,000 point-of-entry certificates required across the entire EU, including such major ports such as Antwerp and Rotterdam. Amazingly, there were 5,800 required for trade just between Britain and Northern Ireland. This represents 15 per cent of the EU total even though the volume and value of this trade is much less than 1 per cent of total EU trade with non-EU countries. Even the term ‘point-of-entry certificates’ and the fact that Northern Ireland must treat Britain as a third country indicates how the relationship with the UK has changed as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol.
In order to honour the hard-fought economic, democratic and peaceful gains of the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol must not be allowed to stand. The British government and the EU must deal seriously with its constitutional and economic implications.
It is perfectly possible to address the concerns of the EU about its single market while ensuring the constitutional and economy integrity of the whole of the UK. There does not need to be a border down the Irish Sea.
For example, the mutual enforcement proposal put forward by the Centre for Brexit Policy and others shows clearly how an ‘invisible border’ can be restored to the natural Irish land border. This would achieve immediately the objectives of both sides in the Brexit negotiations and avoid the damage caused by the Northern Ireland protocol. It would require by law exporters in each jurisdiction to abide by the other jurisdiction’s regulations. The authorities in each jurisdiction would enforce those regulations and impose sanctions on those who fail to do so. There would be no hard border, no border down the Irish Sea and no threat to the Belfast Agreement. If the EU and UK are determined to protect the Belfast Agreement, they need to start working immediately at applying this solution.
In the depths of the struggles, no one believed it possible that the political will could be found to bring peace. Yet 23 years ago, the Belfast Agreement was signed. The importance of this was signalled by John Hume and myself receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, the unintended, but unquestionably escalating tensions created by the Northern Ireland protocol represent a real and present danger to the lives of people living in Northern Ireland. Once again, it will take real political will on both sides to address this issue and protect the peace.
I hope and pray it will be done quickly.
David Trimble was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party from 1995 to 2005. He was appointed to the House of Lords in 2006 and is a member of the Conservative Party