Protocol can turn Northern Ireland into an economic powerhouse

Companies in North are quietly taking advantage of region’s unique status

Co Down-based sandwich firm Deli Lites is just the latest in a line of independently-owned Northern Irish companies to secure substantial deals and lucrative opportunities replacing Britain-based suppliers after landing an agreement with supermarket giant Asda.

Against the backdrop of political instability and rising tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol, local businesses have been quietly and cautiously taking advantage of the region's unique economic status.

With free access to twin markets, Northern Ireland could avail of potentially the largest combined purchasing power in the world, reimagining the region into an economic powerhouse, but only if we let it.

The British government contends that the protocol is causing “disruption to the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland”, however, latest figures from the Office of National Statistics provide some much-needed objectivity. Across all sectors, only 5 per cent of UK businesses reported sending goods to Northern Ireland over the past 12 months.


Northern businesses have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient, with supply chains quickly being rerouted to local producers

In Ireland, North-South trade has seen a sharp increase 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 has risen by 43 per cent, according to the Central Statistics Office.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said the quantum of change is “surprising” with “nearly €800 million worth of additional sales of Northern Irish goods into [the Republic of] Ireland in the first six months of this year”, adding that this data “proves that market access is as critical for trade as anything else and it also shows that the protocol does provide opportunities for Northern Irish producers”.

These economic shifts and opportunities are not isolated; investment interest is being recorded across all sectors with Invest NI reporting more than 30 foreign direct investments on the horizon. Companies such as Citigroup and FinTrU, as well as other technology, financial, and personal services companies have already announced investment into Northern Ireland. So why isn’t this good news cutting through?

One school of thought is that business knows the protocol isn’t going anywhere, opting to just get on with its implementation without raising their heads above the parapet on what has become a highly politicised subject.

Northern Irish businesses have certainly proven themselves to be remarkably resilient, with supply chains quickly being rerouted to local producers, providing a much-needed inward boost of investment for regional businesses trying to recover from the pandemic.

A familiar sentiment is echoed in the recent survey from Manufacturing NI, with manufacturers calling on the Northern Ireland Assembly, the British government, as well as the European Union to do more to make the protocol work. An overwhelming majority favour the perpetuation of the protocol, with prescribed derogations and mitigations, while only 18 per cent prefer it be scrapped.

It seems business may have good reason to have faith in the longevity of the protocol, even setting aside its standing as an international agreement ratified by the sovereign government of the United Kingdom, for behind the smokescreen of opposition to the protocol is a far more pragmatic political approach.

It was reported last week that the UK’s department for international trade had circulated an internal document for staff which cites the advantages of the Northern Ireland protocol among reasons to invest in the UK. The “Why UK?” document describes Northern Ireland as “the only place in the world where businesses can operate free from customs declarations, rules of origin certificates and non-tariff barriers on the sale of goods to both the UK and EU”.

This, in tandem with the implementation of government-issued job adverts for four permanent senior civil servants to oversee the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol, indicates that Boris Johnson’s government doesn’t even believe its own rhetoric about renegotiating the protocol.

The Northern Ireland protocol could transform the economy, and businesses – and politicians know it

In Northern Ireland, the unionist political machine has been hard at work fabricating an inflammatory mirage of large-scale disruption, empty shelves, and businesses at breaking point; all the while simultaneously exclaiming that Northern Ireland is – for all intents and purposes – no longer a full part of the UK.

The infamous “sausage war”, as it became known, was a prime example of economic self-destruction whereby unionist politicians came out in force to support British sausage suppliers over the many local high-quality producers in Northern Ireland. Supporting local businesses has a positive knock-on effect for the economy – exporting those benefits to Britain is short-sighted at best, and self-damaging at worst.

While peddling out deliberately agitational and confusing rhetoric intended to stir tension and obfuscate any potential economic benefit the protocol could represent for the people of Northern Ireland, DUP MLA Paul Frew, in his short time as economy minister, said that he would not stand in the way of Invest NI using dual-market access to attract overseas investors, despite labelling the Irish Sea border issue as “intolerable” to the public.

Making much of the inflamed rhetoric and political theatrics over the “damage” of the protocol appear more like electioneering than a genuine political position. This toxic and contentious narrative provides endless fodder for Johnson and his Brexiteers to perpetuate the portraiture of the EU as the forever-bogeyman, and provides the DUP with a “never, never, never” ticket to run on in next year’s Assembly election, all while knowing that the protocol could provide Northern Ireland with a competitive advantage and a much-needed economic boom.

Northern Ireland remains a post-conflict society, still grappling with intergenerational trauma. Several areas continue to languish, steeped in deprivation, with as many as one in four children living in relative poverty. The Northern Ireland protocol could transform the economy, and businesses – and politicians know it.

Emma DeSouza is a commentator and citizens’ rights campaigner