The protocol and the changing face of NI politics

Sir, – D.R. Cooper argues that the EU should focus its checks on those goods destined for transit from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland and that those checks could occur "at any point between", thereby removing the need for checks at either Belfast (or Larne) docks or indeed at the actual land border (Letters, May 17th). As part of his argument, he also concludes that this approach would have the added advantage of enabling checks on goods manufactured in Northern Ireland destined for export to the Republic. In theory, a positive and proactive suggestion, but I believe there are a number of practical concerns that Mr Cooper has failed to address.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against this approach is sheer logistics. The border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is 499km (310 miles) long with an estimated 300 crossing points. Almost one per mile! In a region with a long-standing history of smuggling, much of which has been associated with the financing of terrorist activities, I believe that it would be impossible to implement checks at “points in between” before those goods transited the border at any one of the almost 300 crossing points. In that context, the checking of goods at the point of entry into Northern Ireland’s ports does seem to be more practical. Clearly, it would be better for all concerned if a way can be found to minimise or eliminate checks on goods that are known to be staying within Northern Ireland, although one would expect some degree of checks to try to prevent or discourage criminality.

The other argument against Mr Cooper’s proposals are the practical realities of some cross-border activities brought about by the existing absence of checks on cross-border trade. The agri-food industry is often cited as an example of this where food products, such as milk, may transit the border multiple times on the same day from collection through various stages of processing into the final product. This goes to the very heart of the problem that the protocol is trying to solve, ie to remove the need for any checks on any goods, no matter which country they are in, once they are on the island of Ireland.

This leads me to my final point which is to address the purported advantage of Mr Cooper’s proposal that goods manufactured in Northern Ireland for export to the Republic could also be checked and thereby provide even greater protection for the EU single market. In my opinion, this purported advantage betrays Mr Cooper’s lack of understanding of the post-Brexit reality in Northern Ireland. For all intents and purposes and as agreed by treaty by both the UK government and the EU, Northern Ireland is part of the EU single market for trade in goods (albeit not services). Therefore, the whole idea is that goods manufactured in Northern Ireland do not need to be checked when exported to the Republic or any other EU member state.

I recognise that at the core of Mr Cooper’s argument is a prioritisation of the UK internal market (remove checks on goods intended to stay in Northern Ireland and check goods that are moving onwards) and at the core of my argument is a prioritisation of the island of Ireland as a part of the EU single market (check goods on entry from Great Britain). If a way can be found to eliminate or minimise checks on goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland then maybe this problem can be solved. – Yours, etc,



Co Meath.

Sir, – Your editorial of 9May 9th echoes many commentators here and across the Irish Sea in its focus on the rise of the Alliance Party ("The real story of the election – the deep, structural shift that it confirms – is the remarkable growth of the centre-ground"). I wish it were so but it is not, not quite.

First, seven of Alliance’s gain of nine seats came at the expense of other parties in what is now a wider centre ground, the Greens lost two seats, the UUP lost one and SDLP lost four, tending to confirm pre-election polls indicating that Alliance, initially the refuge of unionists tired of sectarian politics, is now supported in the majority by nationalists rather than unionists. Jim Allister, the TUV leader, has duly denounced Alliance as “a crypto-nationalist” party.

Second, Alliance got 13.5 per cent of first preferences, less than LucidTalk polls for the Belfast Telegraph had been showing from January, 16 per cent in mid March, 14 per cent in late April. The same pollster showed DUP gaining traction in the campaign. The DUP won more votes in the actual poll as Alliance lost traction and won fewer votes, and the UUP and SDLP too.

Rather than the centre ground gaining remarkably – Alliance won seven seats of its overall gain of nine from its fellows in centre ground – the election showed the unionist extreme largely holding its ground.

Which brings us to the DUP’s loss of three seats, a loss remarkably less than it could have been as its first-preference vote fell sharply by 6.7 per cent, mostly due to a switch of 5 per cent of its 2017 first-preference votes to the more extreme TUV, itself a development worth more analysis.

Finally, I note unionists are still in a majority in the Assembly, with 37 seats under its political designation, including two independent unionists, to 35 for nationalists, 17 for Alliance, designated other, and one for People Before Profit, also designated other.

The other focus was on results showing Sinn Féin as the largest party.

Again a little caution is needed and here you provide it. Sinn Féin returned the same number of seats as in 2017, 27, and gained just 1 per cent in first-preference votes, quite likely lent by SDLP voters wishing to see the first nationalist First Minister in a region designed and gerrymandered in 1920 to be unionist-controlled, which it was entirely until the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985 and the succeeding Belfast Agreement in 1998. It’s worth remembering that in the first Northern Ireland election in 1921, in a remarkable turnout of 88 per cent voting for 52 seats, UUP won an overwhelming 40, Sinn Féin six and Nationalist Party six. Unionists soon proved King George V misgiven in his speech to the new parliament on June 23rd, 1921: “I feel no misgiving as to the spirit in which you who stand here to-day will carry out the all important functions entrusted to your care.”

Attention must now turn to revising the Belfast Agreement further to reflect a greater willingness for voluntary coalition as, ironically, the DUP's former leader Peter Robinson has long advocated, and his successor Jeffrey Donaldson too, as recently as last September at a House of Lords committee, and well detailed by Newton Emerson in a fine opinion piece on May 12th, also commenting on what might be worth exploring in a move to voluntary coalition with protection for the three minorities.

Of course the DUP has now changed its tune. It should be invited to change it back. – Yours, etc,


(Former Joint Secretary,

Anglo-Irish Secretariat,



Co Dublin.