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To stave off a collapse in trade, UK politicians must set aside party squabbles and explain the functions, remit and which elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol can be renegotiated.
A parliamentary post-mortem into the negotiation and implementation of the protocol began this month, with academics, politicians, and those involved in the drafting of the Good Friday Agreement calling for a “de-dramatising” of the situation.
Former chief of staff to ex PM Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, who was deeply involved in the peace process, said the practical problems associated with trade could be solved.
“Boris Johnson was left with two options, a land border or one down the Irish Sea,” Mr Powell told the European affairs sub-committee.
“In taking the one down the Irish Sea, he took the best one, but at the beginning of 2021 the practical difficulties associated with the protocol took effect, leaving people without goods.”
While data surrounding the exact effect of the protocol on cross-border GB-NI trade remains “clouded by smoke”, one economist expects the impact to be sizeable.
Former chief economist for PWC and chief economist at Ulster University Esmond Birnie said figures from 2018, the most recent available, put the level of GB-NI trade at £10.4bn a year, compared to £2.4bn for NI-Republic of Ireland.
Mr Birnie added: “Trade from Great Britain is four times higher and now it has to deal with the extra paperwork and, in some instances, tariffs, which has resulted in some products from GB no longer being available in Northern Ireland.”
Professor of Political Sociology at Queen’s University, Katy Hayward, said the last-minute implementation of Brexit “scuppered things”, adding: “Systems people were unfamiliar with were implemented at short notice, leaving users with a lack of time to familiarise themselves. Suppliers were also not notified of the requirements and there remain concerns over an absence of support.”
Director of the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network Louise Coyle called on parties across the spectrum to produce “clear and coherent messaging on what the protocol was, what functions it served, what its remit was and, importantly, what parts could be renegotiated”.
She added: “It’s created a trade border, a constitutional border and an identity border, but there has been a negligence of communications around it; this must be fixed.”
This opinion has been echoed across dozens of committee hearings since the UK departed the EU, with chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs committee Simon Hoare noting that many traders only sought clarity on the rules and regulations.
However, cabinet office minister David Frost, who led the UK’s Brexit negotiations, claimed the issue was not to do with the protocol’s wording, but rather the way in which it was being operated.
“This is being carried out in a manner that is not satisfactory with the intentions of us as negotiators,” he said. “The way it is currently being operated cannot be sustainable for too much longer, so we want to find solutions that work for everybody involved, as these will be both the most durable and the most likely to last.”
Mr Frost was asked to confirm that the UK government had negotiated for the protocol and understood what it said. Confirming both, he noted that the UK government had “a very clear intention of what the protocol was” and that “loose-end” provisions were included to leave room for negotiations further down the line.
To support his belief that the problems surrounding the protocol were operational, Mr Frost pointed to a dispute about the Union Customs Code (UCC).
Under the protocol, there is a provision that the UCC is applicable for goods moving into Northern Ireland. However, article 6 (2) also requires all parties to minimise checks and controls in the ports of Northern Ireland.
“Obviously, this provision cannot be read straight, as it becomes a matter of judgement to determine if both sides are meeting the stipulations of article 6(2),” Mr Frost added. “The purpose and nature of the protocol is to support, not undermine, the Good Friday Agreement, and this is what is at its core – the reconciling of the Good Friday Agreement with post-Brexit trade requirements.
“All options remain on the table, but we would rather negotiate our way out of the predicament than trigger article 16.”