Opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol featured prominently at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, with Brexit minister David Frost once again threatening to trigger Article 16. However, behind the displays of chest-pounding bravado and the posturing lies a telling insight into his party’s motives; and they are not the pursuit of peace or prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Speaking at a fringe event hosted earlier this week by the Policy Exchange think tank, Frost disclosed that the UK is “unhappy” with the reorientation of supply chains in Northern Ireland responsible for significant growth in cross-Border trade. He lamented that he was “definitely seeing supply chains being reordered quickly”, and that “trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland has gone up a lot in both directions”. Elaborating further, he complained that the protocol was providing “incentives” for increased trade on the island of Ireland, a benefit he feels requires urgent correction.
As businesses in Britain continue to encounter shortages, those located in Northern Ireland have proven themselves to be extremely resilient, reordering supply chains in the face of continued uncertainty around the implementation of the protocol. North-South trade has risen sharply, with the value of goods being imported from Northern Ireland to the Republic increasing by 77 per cent; while the value of exports from the Republic to the North is up by 43 per cent. These benefits have developed in tandem with a surge in investment in the North, with local businesses and suppliers securing lucrative contracts they otherwise would not have brokered.
The crux of the issue for the Brexit minister is that in some cases these deals are replacing Britain-based businesses, and while they ensure the prosperity of Northern Ireland, the priority for Brexiteers and the British government has always exclusively been Britain.
The minister has claimed that the threshold for triggering Article 16, the safeguard measure within the protocol, has been met. The process kickstarts a period of negotiation between the EU and UK in the event of serious disruption or diversion of trade, but not only has Northern Ireland remained almost entirely unaffected by the sort of critical economic disturbances plaguing Britain; it has seen significant economic gains.
Recent weeks have seen violence erupt at petrol stations in England as a fuel shortage swept across the country, sparking widespread panic among consumers and businesses alike. This recent crisis is just the latest in the mounting list of consequences resulting from the British government’s pursuit of Brexit. With dual access to both the European and UK markets, Northern Irish businesses have been largely able to bypass many of the barriers faced in Britain. It has remained untouched by the closures of numerous leading food chains, the CO2 crisis and the food shortages affecting other parts of the UK – all of which serve to highlight that, despite best efforts to pin the chaos in the UK on “Covid-19” or “global shortages”, the culprit is, in reality, Brexit.
The success of the Northern Ireland protocol and the opportunities it presents underscore the failures of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Taking apart the protocol isn’t about the people of Northern Ireland or peace, it’s about protecting the selfish political aims of a party whose primary interest continues to be self-interest.
In addition to Frost’s participation in the Conservative Party Conference, unionist leaders including the DUP, UUP and TUV alongside Brexiteer Kate Hoey and David Trimble held their own fringe event at the conference under the title “Equal Rights for Northern Ireland – End the Protocol”. Removing the protocol and exposing Northern Ireland to the same failures as the rest of the UK instead of utilising the economic opportunities it presents for the betterment of all in the North is a prime example of placing identity politics above the people.
For many, it is also deeply hypocritical to be demanding “equal rights” whilst many of those present continue to deny fundamental rights such as access to abortion services, and Irish language rights. The claim that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK has been undermined by the protocol was echoed by the unionist panel with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson claiming that “the future of the union itself” was in jeopardy, perhaps alluding to a reason why unionists don’t see the growth of an all-island economy as a cause for celebration.
Lost in the furore of unionism uniting against the protocol is this simple fact – unionism is no longer a majority in Northern Ireland.
The DUP, which is currently boycotting strand two of the Good Friday Agreement, is polling at just 13 per cent. When it comes to those aged 18-24, this drops to just 5 per cent according to recent figures from research company Lucid Talk. There is a real question of who these parties claim to represent, and as evidenced by the low turnout at anti-protocol rallies, how much opposition to the protocol there really is. Year-on-year, data continues to show significant shifts in political attitudes and identity in Northern Ireland with a marked decrease in both those describing themselves as British and those adopting the label of unionism.
Northern Ireland is changing; it is no longer a unionist state, but rather a diverse society with an ever-growing majority who no longer identify with the dogmatic and sectarian politics that unionist leaders so desperately cling to.
Donaldson stated recently that he wants to go to the electorate for a mandate on his party’s position on the protocol, but what he and his unionist counterparts may not have considered is what would happen when that mandate is rejected.
Despite the heavy rhetoric from Frost and a fresh Brexit deadline, prime minister Boris Johnson didn’t even mention Northern Ireland in his conference speech on Wednesday, once again highlighting that – despite appearances – the British government and political unionism are not united. Article 16 is not a panacea; it is but another scene in the political theatre the Tories are choreographing, and the lives of the people of Northern Ireland are the stage underfoot.
Emma de Souza is a commentator and citizens’ rights activist