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Good Friday Agreement

Next April will mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It seems like yesterday that Tony Blair felt the “hand of history on our shoulders” and Bertie Ahern solemnly mourned the death of his mother. At the signing ceremony, Senator George Mitchell movingly spoke about his dream to bring his infant son to Stormont in the years ahead to sit in the public gallery and listen to a debate on ordinary issues of life in a democratic society: education, healthcare, agriculture, tourism.

Senator Mitchell fulfilled his ambition 14 years later in 2012 when he brought his son Andrew to Stormont. And yet, there have been too few Assembly debates on ordinary issues. The history of the Assembly has been characterised by crises and it has, at best, operated in fits and starts. It has sat less than 50 per cent of its time and since 2017, it has only met for 30 months in total.

At a time of such international economic and political turbulence, the extent of this dysfunctionality is such that that the only political forum where politicians in Northern Ireland currently meet is the local council. There is no Executive, the Assembly is suspended, there are no Northern Ireland MEPs in the post-Brexit European Parliament and Sinn Féin refuses to take its seats in Westminster.

Recognising the need for political dialogue, last week I convened for the second time in recent months a meeting of MLAs from each of the political parties in Northern Ireland. Meeting in Brussels, the MLAs from across the political spectrum, including the DUP, discussed the potential for progress in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The delegation met with Vice President of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, a number of Irish MEPs and MEPs from the European Parliament’s UK delegation. Vice President Sefcovic spoke of his hope that progress could be made on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks.

He once again emphasised the Commission’s desire to seek pragmatic solutions to real issues that have arisen in the flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Bertie Ahern, who gave a keynote address at the meeting, expressed confidence that a simplified process, supported by technology and data exchange could pave the way to a workable solution.

Despite previous political posturing, the new British government has the opportunity over the next six to eight weeks to agree a process and to shelve the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. In doing so, they would remove the threat of a major trade dispute and notch up an early political win. It will come down to the simple question of whether they have the courage to enter substantive negotiations.

A political solution to the “sea border”, as it has come to be known in the Unionist community between Northern Ireland and the EU’s Customs’ Union, must be balanced with the EU’s legal requirement to safeguard food standards and the health of our citizens. One of the great strengths (and some would argue weaknesses) of the Good Friday Agreement was its use of ‘constructive ambiguity’, particularly in respect of national identity and the future constitutional framework of Northern Ireland. Both sides could take what they wanted from the words in the Agreement.

Unfortunately, in dealing with trade policy and customs processes, there is little room for ambiguity. However, if we want to resolve the current impasse between London and Brussels, we all may need to show some political flexibility and courage.

Last week in Brussels, I detected real pragmatism and a generosity of spirit on the part of the Commission. Political courage was shown by all of the Northern Ireland MLAs who attended. It was notable that the DUP attended the roundtable for the first time. The reconvening of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive should not be dependent on an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, it would be a fitting tribute to the signatories of the Good Friday Agreement and Senator Mitchell if the Assembly is fully functioning next Easter and debating what he called ordinary issues.

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