Twenty four years ago this week, people came together across Northern Ireland and Ireland to endorse the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. This marked the end of decades of instability and the start of a new chapter in our shared history, built on peace and security across our islands.
This was only possible through the endeavours of the British and Irish Governments, who worked with Northern Ireland political parties, the United States, and wider society to drive forward the peace process. As co-signatories of the Agreement, we share a profound duty and commitment to safeguard this hard-won progress.
For that to happen, we need all three of its interlocking strands to function successfully: a power-sharing government at Stormont on the basis of cross-community consent, strong North-South cooperation and enhanced East-West arrangements between London and Dublin.
Respecting these complexities, the Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed with the best of intentions. But after eighteen months of trying to make it work, it is clear the current arrangements are not sustainable. I have spoken to small businesses in Lisburn about the practical problems their goods have faced on arrival at the Port of Larne, with significant customs procedures piling on extra costs. Some businesses have given up this trade altogether due to the piles of extra paperwork necessary.
Businesses are clear on the problems they are facing. As one business-owner told this newspaper over the weekend: “the protocol is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.” Another warned that implementing the Protocol in full would pose a huge and “existential” challenge.
Today, I will be back in Belfast to discuss with businesses and others how we can resolve this grave and serious situation. It is clear that these problems are putting the Belfast Agreement under strain. We can see the consequences in Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Executive has not been fully functioning since February.
The fundamental basis for successful power-sharing remains strong following the recent Assembly elections. That is why I join our Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and others in saying it is time for all the Northern Ireland parties to get back to work and create an executive, without preconditions.
But, realistically, the Protocol is now the biggest obstacle to that happening. All parties in Northern Ireland have recognised that it needs to work better, with the difference between them being how great a change they feel is necessary.
Since June last year, we have been pushing a comprehensive and reasonable solution to deliver on our shared objectives for the Protocol. Our “green channel” proposal would be backed by a trusted trader scheme to provide the EU with real time commercial data and robust enforcement against those who do not play by the rules, giving them confidence that goods intended for Northern Ireland are not entering the Single Market.
Our firm preference is to reach a negotiated solution. I have led six months of talks with my EU counterpart, Vice-President Maros Sefcovic to try to reach solutions on the basis of the EU's current mandate. Despite our intensive efforts in those talks, it has become clear that it will not be possible to resolve the issues Northern Ireland is facing on the basis of the EU's existing mandate.
This is because the problems of the Protocol are baked into the existing legal text. Without changes to this mandate, we cannot fix the problems. For instance, the current application of the European Union Customs Code, agri-food regulations and the EU state aid regime make it impossible to implement everything from our “green channel” for goods through to a dual regulatory regime and a UK-wide tax and spend policy.
Our proposed solution will ease frictions in GB-NI trade, protect the Single Market and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It does not mean ripping up the Protocol, but it does mean changes to the Protocol itself so that it is achieving its aims of supporting the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and the delicate balance created by the Belfast Agreement.
While our door remains open to talks, we cannot allow any more drift or delay. Without an Executive and no prospect of one until these concerns can be addressed, we need to provide reassurance to Northern Ireland that the problems with the Protocol will be fixed one way or another. The UK has a duty to take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability.
That is why I have announced our intention to introduce legislation in the coming weeks.
This Bill is designed to ensure we can make it a success by cementing the parts that have been working, such as the Single Electricity Market, and fixing those that are not: the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control and governance.
We must protect the Belfast Agreement in all its dimensions as the basis for the restoration of the Executive. The Prime Minister and I have been in regular conversation with the Taoiseach and Foreign Minister Coveney to that end. We know the Irish government, and the EU, share this goal even if we are not in agreement on the means.
Northern Ireland needs a solution that can command the broadest possible cross-community support - and be the bedrock of growth, prosperity and stability – for years to come.
Liz Truss is UK Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs