The unionists are digging another hole for themselves with their court action against the Northern Ireland Protocol. There is universal agreement in non-unionist Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels that the Protocol, however unpleasant in the short-term for the North’s consumers and traders, is here to stay, and the unionists will just have to learn to make the best of it. Without the Protocol, there would simply have been no trade deal reached between the UK and the EU. That great believer in realpolitik, Boris Johnson, fully recognises that.
Personally, I find it hard not to feel some sympathy for David Trimble’s impassioned plea in a long article in the Irish Times last week for a reform of the Protocol on the grounds that it contravenes the central pillar of the Good Friday Agreement: “the need for democratic consent to any changes in the constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland.”1 As he points out, Northern Ireland is now subject to EU laws without any right of dissent. There won’t be a vote in the Stormont Assembly on the implementation of the Protocol until 2024, and even then the cross-community safeguard in the 1998 Agreement will not apply. As I have pointed out in this column before, democratic it is not. However, it is a pity that at no point in his article did Trimble admit that it was the original Brexit vote – which he fully supported – which is the real source of the North’s problems and unionist woes on this issue.
Very few in this republic would share my feelings. Sympathy in Dublin for unionists is extremely thin on the ground: more so, in my opinion, than at any time for over 40 years. The feeling in London is somewhat similar. So rather than flog a dead horse through the courts (an arresting mixed metaphor!), I suggest practically-minded unionists should find ways of making the Protocol work for Northern Ireland. And I would suggest that Irish politicians – rather than engaging in their favourite pastime, finding a scapegoat (in this case the European Commission for its blunder in invoking the Protocol’s Article 16 over the Covid vaccine) – should look for ways to mitigate the effects of the Protocol in the short-term so as to give its longer-term benefits time to become apparent.
None of this will be easy. As the economist John Fitzgerald has pointed out, there are some opportunities here for Northern Ireland. Small British firms wishing to supply their EU customers could open a branch in the North, a much cheaper and less complex prospect than starting one in France or Germany. But that requires the DUP Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, to go out and sell the Protocol as a permanent and positive feature. There’s precious little chance of that happening.
In the badly-affected retail sector, the Irish government could perhaps persuade the European Commission to give the small number of UK supermarket chains which supply the Northern Ireland market ‘trusted trader’ status, so they don’t have to wrestle with the mountain of paperwork facing them in sending goods across the Irish Sea. But Commission sources have warned that Dublin’s special pleading for Northern Ireland has its limits. In the longer-term Fitzgerald believes that an all-island retail distribution system with somewhat higher costs is the likely outcome (which would also represent a very small step towards a united Ireland).
I hope that smart people in the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are thinking beyond a few difficult short-term fixes. A little public sympathy for the unionists’ predicament might even be in order. The longer-term challenge is to show that the Protocol – and, more importantly, continued membership of the EU by both Irish jurisdictions – can contribute to improving people’s lives and prosperity on the whole island. Here I believe there are all sorts of opportunities, particularly in the areas of the economy and health.
The Irish government needs to wield some financial incentives to kick-start the very underdeveloped all-island economy, which I still believe is one way to show sensible unionists that it makes sense for the island to work together for the greater good of all its people. In a 2016 report the North-South trade and business development body, InterTradeIreland,2 outlined a number of areas where there were “great opportunities” if cross-border coordination and integration could be stepped up: notably through research, innovation and training in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and software. It pointed to “rich potential for further collaboration” in areas like cloud computing and data analytics. It stressed the “very low level of all-island coordination of the education systems”, and the particular weakness of links between third level institutions.
The report proposed the coordination of research centres and a system of all-island clinical trials in the pharma sector (very topical!); the all-island integration of the medical device industry (which “could lead to the emergence of a very significant concentration of this sector in Northern Ireland”); and an all-island internship scheme involving universities and business, and the merging of existing clusters in Belfast and Dublin in the software sector (which “together would constitute an internationally significant industry agglomeration”). It reported “considerable enthusiasm” for such proposals from business leaders on both sides of the border.
There is no lack of good ideas for greater North-South collaboration in industry and academia. A Belfast businessman friend concerned about climate change points out that both Belfast and Dublin are vulnerable to serious flooding over the next decade as sea levels rise: why not collaborate in a programme of building up our neglected sea walls and creating resilient infrastructure along the heavily-populated east coast?
The same man is enthusiastic about the idea of a high-speed rail line between Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Belfast (and maybe even Derry). It would, of course, be extraordinarily expensive, but could it fire up economic growth for the whole island in the way that Franklin Roosevelt’s huge ‘New Deal’ infrastructure projects did for the US in the 1930s? It would certainly have major economic, social and environmental benefits. For these reasons such lines have become commonplace in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and are even being embarked on by Turkey and Egypt . An Irish government feasibility study into this €10-15 billion project was due to have got under way before Christmas. Dublin City University economics professor Edgar Morgenroth is a little sceptical: he wonders if it is worth spending such a huge amount of money on a train that will have only a limited number of stops. As a border person, he would prefer a far smaller amount to go on an east-west ‘greenway’, partly following abandoned railway lines from Dundalk to Sligo, to help bring tourists to that often forgotten region.
Morgenroth thinks the Irish government needs to find ways of incentivising Southern firms to look to Northern suppliers and helping Northern firms to trade more into the EU (InterTradeIreland could play a role here). More generally, he says since all the emphasis over the past 50 years has been on attracting in multinational companies (through the IDA) and helping Irish companies to export (through Enterprise Ireland), there is now a need for a new government agency to help Irish SMEs to source vital supplies (e.g. Irish bakers to find French flour in place of the now more expensive English variety. One could add Northern Irish bakers: I have always been surprised that the small firms of the excellent Northern home baking sector have not made further inroads into the Southern market).
Then there is health. The level of North-South cooperation to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely limited. Irish government sources have said there was never any serious engagement on a joint approach to key measures like quarantine, travel restrictions or the coordinated shutdown of social and economic life because Dublin recognised that the DUP would never agree to that.3 But at least let us learn from the mistakes of this pandemic, and try to think about how we might do better next time. The Northern Health Minister, Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionists, is a practical man, and I don’t think he would object to a group of eminent public health experts – the likes of Dr Gabriel Scally, Professor Sam McConkey, Professor Paddy Mallon and Professor Martin McKee (all Ulstermen, as it happens) – being brought together by the two governments to report on the future lessons from the pandemic for the island of Ireland.
The Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT) border region network of health boards and trusts – now nearly 30 years old – has shown the way, with impressive cooperation in areas like cardiology, radiotherapy and Ear Nose and Throat surgery. Prevention of communicable and non-communicable diseases (like Covid) was another obvious area for collaboration through joint health promotion campaigns. But CAWT’s good example has not been followed elsewhere. A very senior Northern civil servant told me in 2015: “Neither health system is in good shape, but some rationalisation could have been done together. The cross-border justification could have been used: ‘this has to happen on a cross-border basis – otherwise it won’t happen.’ 60% of people on the island live in the Belfast-Dublin corridor, yet there is no sense of any coordinated services or activities there.”
I fear, however, that there is one key obstacle to any major North-South cooperation project. I call it bad faith. Others might call it the old dishonesties of tribal politics. But can we trust the two parties in government in Belfast to do the best they can for the economy and people of Northern Ireland? I worry about their reluctance, for completely separate reasons, to involve themselves in major North-South projects for the mutual benefit of all the people on the island. The DUP’s reluctance to have anything to do with the Irish government or with all-Ireland projects, however sensible and practical, is well-known. But in the post-Brexit years they have also been playing the worst kind of ultra-partisan politics. For example, when Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots pulled out officials checking imported foods at Larne harbour earlier this month without even checking with the PSNI to see if there was any credible threat to them, was his main aim a political one: to undermine the Protocol?
On the other hand, would Sinn Fein be genuinely willing to do their share of heavy lifting on a major all-island transport or health project if it made the current Fianna Fail-led government look good, and therefore took away from their drive to be in power in Dublin after the next election? I often wonder when people like Michelle O’Neill or Conor Murphy get up in the morning, do they say to themselves: “Today, as a senior government minister, I will work as hard as I can for the people of the North of Ireland”; or rather do they say “I must always keep in mind that my party’s core aim is Irish unity, and thus the abolition of Northern Ireland – and if the North works too well (and I as a senior government minister make it work too well), that aim may be sidelined or postponed”?
1 ‘Protocol threatens rather than protects Belfast Agreement’, 20th February
2 ‘Mapping the Potential for All-Island Sectoral Eco-systems’
3 ‘Why is there no serious engagement on joint North-South cooperation approach to Covid?’ Irish Times, 28th January