One year on, the Northern Ireland Protocol looks like it’s here to stay. Its fiercest opponent (and chief negotiator) in the British government, Lord David Frost, has gone. Before that the British had dropped their demand that the European Court of Justice must be removed from the Protocol, and indicated they were now ready to join the EU in focussing on the practical problems that were creating difficulties for the North. Its strongest critic in the North, the DUP, is agonising over whether it should carry through with its threat to collapse the Stormont institutions over the issue, knowing that it will almost certainly be punished in the May Assembly election for doing so. How best to implement “the best of both worlds” scenario (i.e. the North’s unique dual access for goods to both the British and EU markets), espoused by politicians as different as Michael Gove, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar, is starting to loom into view.
Meanwhile business people and consumers in Ireland and Northern Ireland are getting on with the hard choices about what they buy: whether it is Northern supermarkets replacing more difficult to get British goods with local ones; or firms in the Republic choosing to source manufacturing inputs from Northern Ireland rather than Britain; or Northern shoppers choosing food products like sausages and black puddings not on the basis of their countries of origin but on price and quality.
Unfortunately the DUP, unusually for a right-wing party, is known for its deaf ear when it comes to listening to business saying things it doesn’t want to hear. It is a deep irony that Sinn Fein, whose mission is to see the eventual destruction of Northern Ireland, is now urging the need for stability, while the DUP keeps issuing threats to bring Stormont down if it doesn’t get its way over the Protocol (although its leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, “paused” those threats this week in order to give British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, time for further negotiations with the EU). Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long has called them “frankly embarrassing.”
A businessman friend who knows the UK and Irish markets well particularly welcomes what he calls the “right of dialogue” which the Northern Irish business sector, led by a couple of particularly smart people, has gained from the EU vice president Maros Sefcovic and his team. Sefcovic said after his visit to the North in the autumn: “Not one of the business representatives I met in Northern Ireland asked me to scrap the Protocol. Rather they asked me to fix the practical challenges in implementing it.” This dialogue must be one of the factors which saw the president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Paul Murnaghan, saying last week that almost 70% of his membership believed that “Northern Ireland’s unique status now presents opportunities for the region.”
Another Dublin-based businessman friend, who has over 25 years experience of Northern Ireland, gives four reasons why the Protocol is the best way to stabilise – and eventually develop – the Northern economy. Firstly, it provides the institutional structure (the UK-EU joint committee) to deal with any difficulties. Secondly, it gives Brexit a specific, manageable form which will help to create a stable economic climate throughout the island of Ireland. Thirdly, the majority of Members of the NI Assembly support the Protocol, thus giving it democratic legitimacy, and providing a stabilising influence by putting pressure on political unionism (in particular the DUP) to back off from its extreme position. Finally, it has led (and will continue to lead) to a substantial growth in North-South trade and business.
The figures certainly support the last of these statements. Figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office for the first six months of last year show a 60% (or €800 million) increase in imports from Northern Ireland to the Republic and a 45% (or €1.9 billion) increase in exports to the North compared with the same period in 2020.
My first businessman friend warns against reading too much into this sharp increase in North-South trade. He says that by European standards trade levels across the Irish border are still relatively low, reflecting the smallness of the Northern market and the weakness of its manufacturing sector. There are some exceptions of course: the very significant growth of the all-island agri-food sector in the past 30 years; and, more specifically, the purchase by Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus of buses from Wrights of Ballymena.
This man does not think we will see Northern Ireland taking advantage of its post-Protocol “best of both worlds” situation until the uncertainty surrounding the Protocol is removed by an Assembly vote in 2024. Certainly major FDI companies are not going to invest while the sword of Damocles represented by that vote and the loud opposition of political unionism to the Protocol is a continuing factor. However he hopes that the result of this May’s Assembly election might just lead to what he calls “a consensus of the sensible” who will lobby to keep the Protocol, which by then should have its annoying birth pains smoothed out, with a lot of its awkward paperwork being simplified through digitalisation.
Maybe it is time to grasp the nettle and put forward a radical idea to go alongside the Protocol. That excellent Irish Times economic commentator, Cliff Taylor, had an article in the paper on Christmas Eve pointing out what a great selling point the Protocol will be for attracting Foreign Direct Investment into Northern Ireland.1 However the body charged with this, Invest Northern Ireland, is far behind its Southern equivalent, the IDA, which is envied around the world for its extraordinary record of attracting foreign firms into the Republic in recent decades. Even last year, in mid-pandemic, employment in the companies it supported grew by almost 17,000. Last month I heard Fergal O’Brien, a senior executive at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, state that no other country in the world in modern times had done what Ireland (led by the IDA) had done: double the number of people at work – from one to two million – in the space of just 25 years (from 1993 to 2017).
There are, of course, major obstacles to be overcome. The North’s sclerotic and sectarian politics is the obvious one. Its lower skills levels, with lower university participation and a brain drain of high-achieving young people to Britain, is another. Taylor recalled hearing a suggestion at a recent ESRI seminar that the work of Skillnet Ireland – which supports business to link with education and access skilled employees – could be extended to Northern Ireland. Obviously this whole proposal also needs to be framed “in the context of the climate change agenda, realising that clean energy, for example, is now a vital factor in attracting companies here.”
Taylor concluded: “But you could see the play to be made. A green, high-skill Ireland offering two different but complementary investment offers…Dublin is jammed, has a chronic housing shortage and does not need more FDI beyond what will develop from firms already there. As well as tasking the IDA with attracting investment to other parts of the Republic, common sense would say that it could also play a role in working with Invest NI in developing an all-island offering with targets to be met.” I suggest the IDA could start by pointing interested investors towards Derry, in which local people complain Invest NI is less than interested, and where a significant number of cross-border workers from Donegal have traditionally found employment.
15 years ago the chairman of the Ulster Bank Group, London-based, Northern Ireland born businessman Alan Gillespie proposed that the IDA and Invest NI should be merged. Maybe he was a little ahead of his time. Perhaps now, with the Protocol to be managed for the good of both Northern Ireland and Ireland, is the better time.
Pragmatism is the key word here: an appeal to the hard-headed, industrious values that Ulster Protestants, in particular, used to be famous for. I insist on believing that the way to soften their resistance to the Protocol’s Irish Sea trade border – as to all other policies they perceive (with good reason) as weakening their links with Britain – is through improving their prosperity through good jobs and rising living standards. And I think that, given time and good implementation, the Protocol can help greatly in that process.
There are, I believe, many more working class unionist people like Alan McBride, the impressive north Belfast man who lost his wife and father-in-law in the IRA’s Shankill Road fish shop bombing in 1993, and has worked with and for victims of violence ever since. McBride told journalist Susan McKay in her recent book Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground :“I am a pragmatist. And I mean, economically, I want to be able to have a house and a car and a job and a standard of living. And to be honest with you, those things matter more to me than the flag that’s flying above our country. And if, because of Brexit, Northern Ireland is not flourishing and the South is, why would you not want to be part of that? I absolutely would.”
I also agree with the former senior Irish trade unionist Blair Horan in a recent paper on the Protocol for the Dublin-based Institute of International and European Affairs. He argues that the Protocol is a “far superior outcome” for the North than that enjoyed by Britain under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. The paper itself is dense and complex, but his final conclusion is clear enough: “The Protocol is about trade relationships. It is not related to the constitutional issue. It is worth reflecting if the hardest land border ever [i.e. the Irish border having become the external border of the EU single market in the event of a hard Brexit] would be more polarising of the communities in Northern Ireland than the compromise of the Protocol with its compensating economic benefits for Northern Ireland, which could lead to a more stable and prosperous Northern Ireland, and remove the constitutional issue from the pressure of events.”2
1 ‘Time for the IDA to spread its success over the border, Irish Times, 24th December
2 ‘The Trade and Investment Advantages of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’, IIEA, 22nd October