A majority of the North’s MLAs have rejected “in the strongest possible terms” UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s controversial move to unilaterally overturn post-Brexit arrangements he signed off on for the region.
Legislation from the Tory government at Westminster to amend sections of the Northern Ireland protocol was denounced by Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, as well as the centrist Alliance Party.
In a jointly-signed letter to Mr Johnson, 52 of the recently-elected 90 Stormont representatives launched a blistering attack on the Conservative leader for endangering “a clear economic advantage to our region”.
“We reject in the strongest possible terms your government’s reckless new protocol legislation, which flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses but most people in Northern Ireland,” they said.
‘I can’t believe we’re living here’: Historic Wexford cottage that was at risk of falling into decline is restored
‘For God and Ulster’: Adrenaline coursed through my veins. A red mist descended over those around me
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, Alliance leader Naomi Long and SDLP Brexit spokesman Mathew O’Toole are among the signatories, along with their party colleagues.
The protocol, they told the prime minister, is “the product of the hard Brexit you personally championed and a withdrawal deal you personally signed”, and “whilst not ideal, the protocol currently represents the only available protections for Northern Ireland from the worst impacts of that hard Brexit”.
The agreement, brokered by London and Brussels to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which offers traders in the North unique access to both the UK and EU markets by effectively keeping it in line with EU regulations, “also offers clear economic advantage to our region”, the MLAs wrote.
“The fact that you have removed this advantage from businesses in Great Britain, at a clear economic cost, does not justify doing the same to businesses in Northern Ireland,” they added.
The MLAs said they also strongly reject Mr Johnson’s “continued claim to be protecting the Good Friday Agreement as your government works to destabilise our region”.
However, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson highlighted that all unionist MLAs opposed the protocol. He said the signatories to the letter “represent one side of this debate and this institution in the Assembly can only be restored on the basis of a cross-community consensus – majority rule will not cut it “.
“That’s what unionists were told over all the years. You cannot in a divided society operate on the basis of majority rule,” he said.
The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce said that while there were “attractive elements” in the UK legislation for consumer-facing businesses, a “careful balance” had to be struck to protect gains made by exporters and the agri-food sectors through the protocol. “The apparent shifting of risk onto NI businesses is a cause for concern,” said Stuart Anderson, head of public affairs at the chamber.
He urged the EU and the UK to restart discussions without further delay. “Anything other than a negotiated outcome is simply sub-optimal,” said Mr Anderson.
The Federation of Small Businesses, the region’s largest business association which represents around 7,000 enterprises, said traders were being caught in the crossfire of politicians “hijacking” the protocol to further their own ideological pursuits.
Spokesman Roger Pollen said the protocol was “definitely working for quite a lot of businesses” , especially in manufacturing and processing, and “not working badly for retail”, although retailers were still benefiting from the so-called “grace periods” to ease in new arrangements.
However, the protocol was “working very badly for a significant minority of smaller businesses who don’t have the capacity to take on the burdens it is making”.