Making the UUP relevant again…

On the 13th.  of October 2021, the European Commission issued proposals to resolve the impasse around the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol following discussions with political leaders, businesses, civil society, and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland.

The proposals seek to differentiate between goods intended to stay in Northern Ireland and those going on to the Republic of Ireland or the EU by providing an “express lane” with an 80% reduction in official checks and vastly simplified procedures for phytosanitary certification.

Unfortunately, the EU proposals have been completed ignored by the UK government, who seem hell bent on expanding the conflict with the EU by breaking international law, unilaterally disapplying parts of the Protocol, and introducing other elements into the impasse such as removing the Jurisdiction of the European Court and the power of the devolved NI Legislative Assembly to vote on the continued operation of the protocol.

On the 13th. June, 52 out of the 90 MLAs elected in May representing three of the norths main parties wrote a letter to Prime Minister Johnson saying they “rejected in the strongest possible terms your government’s new reckless protocol legislation” which they said flew in the face of the wishes of most businesses and the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Whilst the protocol was not ideal, they said it was the best option to protect Northern Ireland from the worst excesses of a hard Brexit.

They further rejected the UK government claim that its intention was to protect the Good Friday Agreement. “To complain the protocol lacks cross-community consent, while ignoring the fact that Brexit itself – let alone hard Brexit – lacks even basic majority consent here, is a grotesque act of political distortion,” they wrote. “Your claims to be acting to protect our institutions is as much a fabrication as the Brexit campaign claims you made in 2016.”

They said the way to fix the issues with the protocol was to engage properly with the EU to find a negotiated settlement.” We will resolutely oppose this reckless Bill and continue to promote post-Brexit solutions on the basis of trust and honesty,” they concluded.

Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, did not sign the letter, despite casting himself in the role of David Trimble as a peacemaker, and seeking to distance his party from the “scrap the protocol” line of the UK government, DUP and TUV. However, he has recently called on the DUP to allow the Assembly to convene and nominate a deputy first Minister, having refused to say he would do so during the election campaign.

He has also expressed the fear that the DUP will seek another election to overturn Sinn Fein’s win last May based on a “win” on the Protocol and hoping that any votes haemorrhaged to the TUV will return to the DUP to prevent the nomination of a Sinn Fein First Minister. If so, the UUP will be entirely irrelevant to the contest between Sinn Fein and the DUP for the First Minister post.

But is Doug Beattie in agreement with the NI Protocol Bill removing the power of the Assembly to vote on the continuance of the operation of the Protocol? The Brexit slogan “Take back control” wasn’t supposed to be about taking control away from the devolved institutions.

He invokes the spirit of Dunkirk, but is he going to stand idly by while the UK lays the groundwork for a trade war with the EU?   N. Ireland could be damaged far more seriously by such a trade war, given that so much of the N. Ireland economy, and especially its agri-business sector, is intimately integrated with that of Ireland and the EU.

If he wants his party to become relevant again, he must join with the other three party leaders and travel to Brussels to discuss how the EU’s October proposals for operating the protocol could be made more acceptable to unionists and all others in NI.

Technically, the EU negotiates only with sovereign states when it has a mandate from its member states to do so. But there is nothing to prevent “clarificatory” talks with NI party and business leaders. Indeed, the October EU proposals came about through precisely such consultations where the EU committed itself to “enhanced engagement with Northern Ireland Stakeholders and Authorities’ and unilaterally changed its legislation around the import of medicines to ease a perceived difficulty in N. Ireland.

In welcoming the proposals, Aodhán Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, stated that ‘the EU had listened to business stakeholder demands and had shifted from its position in the summer when it said the protocol was not negotiable.’ He maintained the EC ‘proposals looked almost like a carbon copy’ of requests made by Northern Ireland business leaders.

Customs enforcement is ultimately an operational matter, to be tweaked in response to random discoveries of contraband produce, risk assessments, and intelligence reports. It needs to be constantly updated as new risks emerge and old risk assessments prove unfounded. If Doug and other NI party leaders could come to an agreement with Brussels as to how the process can be managed, the purported need for the N. Ireland Protocol Bill will disappear.

If parties representing two thirds of the NI electorate and seats in the Assembly can find a way to make it work, the rationale for the NI Protocol Bill and risk of an EU/UK confrontation and trade war can be averted.

Doug Beattie speaks a lot about having the courage to do the right thing rather than the popular thing. He may, of course, be referred to as a “Lundy” for being prepared to work with other parties for the betterment of N. Ireland. But it is time for him to match his positive words about making N. Ireland work for all with courageous actions.

Not since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement has N. Ireland made such a positive contribution to peace and harmony in Europe, the UK and Ireland. Doug Beattie would be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, David Trimble. Having been side-lined by the DUP for so long, this may be Doug Beattie’s last chance to make the UUP relevant again.

He could make the UUP the critical swing vote enabling the good governance of N. Ireland in the interests of all who live there.

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