If EU won't move, next PM must act in interest of UK - Beattie
Next week the new Prime Minister will lay out their priorities for dealing with a deeply challenging time for the United Kingdom. The cost-of-living crisis worsens by the day, our health service has suffered an onslaught from the COVID-19 pandemic and war continues to rage in Ukraine.
Either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will also have to move quickly to deal with the Northern Ireland Protocol. It continues to cause problems for business and consumers while uncertainty remains. It is also contributing to a toxic atmosphere in Northern Ireland politics with devolution still not having been restored almost four months on from the Assembly election.
Trust has undoubtedly been eroded amongst unionists in how the previous Prime Minister and Government acted in agreeing the disastrous Northern Ireland Protocol. In the rush to be seen to have fulfilled a campaign pledge, Boris Johnson allowed a scenario whereby checks would be carried out on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Three years on those who went full tilt after an ill-prepared for Brexit, and initially accepted Boris Johnson’s proposals, have an awful lot to answer for.
For our part, I know that the Ulster Unionist Party can stand over our record on Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol. Whether you may agree or disagree with our positioning we have always acted on the basis of giving our honest assessment to the people of Northern Ireland. We have put forward proposals throughout which put our people and the Union at their core.
We recognised the deeply flawed proposals of 2019 which others hailed as a “serious and sensible way forward”. We pointed out how damaging it was to concede the principle of border control posts, creating a border in the Irish Sea – something that is an anathema to unionism. We have consistently put forward common sense proposals to remedy the situation while others descended into finger pointing and deepening trenches. These proposals now form part of the solution recognised by both the UK and EU. The Ulster Unionist Party has driven change in the conversation. We have gone from standing virtually alone to now being in a position where all of the main parties recognise the problems with the Protocol. We want to see the Protocol replaced.
The prospects of progress on the Northern Ireland Protocol are not bleak, not least because by all accounts, both parties in this negotiation are circling the same landing zone. The Ulster Unionist Party has always advocated that the way to replace the Protocol is at the negotiating table. It is important to acknowledge that while they might be means to an end, the Protocol Bill or the triggering of Article 16 are not solutions in themselves. Treaty change is required.
Now it is a matter of the UK and the EU getting back to negotiating. That requires stepping back from the childish finger pointing and clamber to be seen as the ones who have been right. Any criticism we might make of the UK Government’s role in this mess does not detract from how inflexible the European Union has demonstrated itself to be time and again, as well as being as capable as anyone of cynically using Northern Ireland for leverage.
What is required in the weeks and months ahead is an acknowledgment of the problems and a commitment to finding lasting solutions. The fact that the grace periods were allowed to continue for so long was acknowledgement in itself by the European Union of the flaws in the Protocol and the damage they cause to Northern Ireland.
This damage will affect all in Northern Ireland and will only become more apparent as time continues to pass without resolution. To refer to “unionist concerns” on the Protocol as though to diminish the seriousness of the issues does a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland who deserve to know the reality of how detrimental the out-workings of the Protocol will be to every-day life. As costs continue to rise for a myriad of reasons, adding a disproportionate burden to the Great Britain to Northern Ireland supply chain will only punish the pockets of the ordinary public. The European Union cannot continue to stand over this position as though it is reasonable when there are solutions there to deal with goods that have no risk of entering the Single Market.
Unionists do also have specific concerns that are reasonable and rational and go to the core of our identity. No Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should have agreed to putting a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and no future Prime Minster should continue to stand over this. The consent principle of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement must be respected and Northern Ireland’s place with the UK internal market protected.
As we enter the winter months, and the rate of inflation continues to grow as do rising energy costs it is unconscionable that we would continue in Northern Ireland without being able to provide local targeted interventions via the devolved institutions. The new Prime Minister must act decisively upon taking office.
Continuing the circular conversation of the last three years cannot be an option. If the EU continues to be inflexible then the Prime Minister must of course act in the best interests of the United Kingdom. It will be for Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss to demonstrate quickly that they understand what those interests are.