As leaders of unionist parties in Northern Ireland, we represent 71 per cent of all those who voted unionist at the last general election. We have our own distinctive political agendas, policies and priorities but we welcome the fact that there is no unionist party supporting the Northern Ireland protocol which has been foisted on Northern Ireland, broken the Act of Union, undermined the political institutions, caused civic unrest and damaged our local economy.
Ironically we have been told that the protocol is essential to upholding the Belfast Agreement, the stability of Northern Ireland and peace in our country.
Even a cursory examination of the impact of the protocol would expose just how spurious these claims are. The fact is that all the guarantees contained in the Belfast Agreement have been ripped up by the protocol. A central pillar of the agreement is that “it would be wrong to make ANY change in the status of Northern Ireland, save with the consent of the majority of its people”. This consent principle was central to assuring both unionists and nationalists that the future direction of Northern Ireland would be decided democratically and not by force or coercion.
However, the protocol has introduced seismic changes in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
First of all, the UK government has admitted in court that the passing of the European Withdrawal Act and in particular the protocol section of that Act “impliedly repealed” article six of the Act of Union 1800 and removed the principal benefit of the union, namely the guarantee of unimpeded trade between the countries that make up the UK.
Second, as a result of the protocol, 60 per cent of the laws governing our economy will be made in Brussels not in Belfast or London. They must be implemented without any discussion let alone possibility of amendment by either the Assembly or the Westminster parliament. If they are not implemented and applied in Northern Ireland then the European Court of Justice is empowered to punish the UK and impose whatever sanctions it decides, making the ECJ a supreme court for Northern Ireland.
All of these changes have been imposed without the people of Northern Ireland having any say about them. Equally the Assembly has been denied any role in the implementation of these changes. The reason is obvious. They would never have been passed by the Assembly because they would have required cross-community consent and no unionist in the Assembly would have voted for them. A promise has been made to allow an Assembly vote on the protocol in 2024 but, in order to ensure that unionist ability to oppose the protocol is blunted, the requirement of the Belfast Agreement that controversial issues need a cross-community vote has been removed.
Had the safeguards in the Belfast Agreement for the nationalist population been so cynically removed, the Dublin government, the American administration and the EU would have been up in arms, yet this stamping on the protections for unionists is defended with the dishonest claim that the measures are necessary to protect the very agreement from which they came.
It is little wonder there has been civic unrest in Northern Ireland as unionists fearful about the future seek ways to register their frustration
It is little wonder that there has been civic unrest in Northern Ireland as unionists fearful about the future, angry at being betrayed by their own government, being kicked around as a negotiating football by the EU and seeing all the political means of resistance blocked, seek for other ways to register their frustration and fears. The reason why the unrest has not spilled over into greater disorder is due to the work which we, our parties and community workers have been doing to prevent it. We have no desire to see rioting in our streets, young people getting criminal records and damaging headlines across the world resulting in a flight of investment from our already-damaged economy.
The constitutional, legal and regulatory separation of Northern Ireland from our biggest economic partner, Britain, has had immensely damaging impacts on our economy. Supply chains have been disrupted, costs have increased and many firms have stopped selling to Northern Ireland because of delays due to EU checks at ports of entry into Northern Ireland.
Twenty per cent of all checks on food products (Common Health Entry Document Checks) coming into the EU are carried out at Northern Ireland ports even though we account for less than 1 per cent of EU trade in these goods. When the present grace periods end, 50 per cent of all checks across the EU on food products will be in Northern Ireland at an internal border in the UK. It is estimated that lorries carrying supplies for supermarkets in Northern Ireland will need to have 700 pages of documentation for every load increasing costs and delays.
The Northern Ireland protocol must go. Those who say that it is now internationally binding and can’t be removed clearly have not read the withdrawal agreement or the political declaration which accompanied it. Both make reference to alternatives being possible and even to one side withdrawing from it if there were societal, economic or trade diversion consequences. All three conditions have been met. There is an alternative which would protect the EU single market and the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK. That alternative is the mutual enforcement of each side’s regulations in trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and has already been presented to the EU negotiators.
The UK government’s command paper, “Northern Ireland Protocol: the Way Forward”, which was presented to Westminster last July – recognises the need to replace the protocol, but time is running out on the October 1st deadline when the full force of EU barriers to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland are due to be put into force. Time is also running out politically. As unionist leaders, we have to decide what political role there is for local political institutions when they are left impotent to deal with matters which affect the daily life of our constituents because their law-making powers have been passed over to a foreign administration in Brussels.
In light of this, unionists cannot continue to operate structures set up to provide for co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic when the more vital relationship with the rest of our own country is being smashed. We believe we would be failing in our duty to the people of Northern Ireland if we were to continue to operate the North/South bodies set up under the Belfast Agreement while our links to the UK are being ripped apart.
It is in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland that we take every possible political step to thwart it and we have committed ourselves to do so
Equally unionists will not co-operate in the imposition of the protocol through the implementation of EU demands in the Assembly. The protocol is designed to use the political arrangements set up under the Belfast Agreement to undermine our membership of the UK, absorb the Northern Ireland economy into the economy of the Republic and harm our much more important economic links with Britain. It is in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland that we take every possible political step to thwart it and we have committed ourselves to do so.
We say to our own Conservative and unionist government, show that you care about the union. Act on the issues you have identified in your own command paper. If you cannot persuade the EU to behave responsibly in respect of Northern Ireland , then use your new-found sovereignty and the provision in Article 16 of the withdrawal agreement and introduce measures to keep Northern Ireland a full part of the UK.