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Time for a fresh approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol

We are all agreed that we want to protect the gains achieved in the Good Friday Agreement. Reconciling this with the Brexit path chosen by the UK Government has led to far too much tension between the EU and the UK.

There is a vast shared agenda on hold until such time as this reconciliation can be figured out.

It is surely not beyond the statecraft of the two sides to firstly recognise the importance of these common agendas and then to apply the maximum political energy required to settle the Protocol once and for all.

At the inaugural meeting of the EU UK Parliamentary Assembly, members from both sides outlined some of those issues that require our urgent attention including cooperation on the defence of Ukraine, the energy crisis and the EU’s Horizon research programme.

I unreservedly condemn the UK Government’s proposed unilateral action that would dis-apply parts of the Protocol. Unfortunately, we have been here before with the Internal Market Bill, multiple threats to trigger Article 16 and unilateral extensions of the ‘grace periods’.

This approach by the UK Government has achieved nothing so far except to escalate tensions and evaporate any residual traces of goodwill and trust developed between the parties.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland is UK territory and the EU is not in a position to force the UK Government to properly implement what has been agreed. The stigma against breaking international law has been significantly eroded by the UK Government but that is presumably a strategic choice that has been made.

The damage to the UK’s reputation is a cost that the UK Government seems willing to bear.

While it feels like huge effort has been made to find an agreement, in fact there has been virtually no real engagement this year and certainly no new political initiative.

There are a number of measures which could and should be taken which may move things along and facilitate the reconciliation of the various issues outstanding and facilitate the formation of an executive and the election of Michelle O’Neill as First Minister.

First of all, the role the US plays is significant. Conor Burns’ recent trip to the US underlines the UK’s anxiety about the influence of the Irish lobby in Congress. One of the most obvious solutions to the Protocol problem is a Swiss-style veterinary agreement between the EU and UK effectively maintaining the status quo on food safety rules (offered by the EU and rejected by the UK). UK objections are based on fears that the resulting alignment would make it impossible for the UK to do a trade deal with the US in the future.

It is worth exploring the possibility that the US Trade Representative would be mandated to revive discussions on a UK-US Trade deal as part of a diplomatic initiative to unblock the issues described above. Rather than the US admonishing the UK, it would set the protection of the Protocol as a key objective of a future US-UK trade agreement.

Secondly, for all residual issues, we need a response from Liz Truss and Maros Sefcovic to the letter sent by Hilary Benn MP and Peter Norris in March requesting ‘formalised, regular, tripartite meetings between EU, UK and Northern Ireland business to address and resolve operational issues’.

This letter has not even elicited a response.

If business leaders were to agree on a set of workable proposals beyond SPS issues, and to routinely monitor these over time, it would still require political support. For some Unionist politicians, questions of economic and business efficacy are subordinate to cultural and identity issues which will be impossible to completely reconcile.

Thirdly, there has been a distinct lack of high level diplomacy in recent months.

Micheal Martin and Boris Johnson had a very tetchy phone call last week, the point of which was not obvious in retrospect. More constructively, just as was the case in the Wirral in 2019 on the Withdrawal Agreement, a bilateral initiative from London and Dublin could be the right way to push through the current impasse.

It is also a long time since Boris Johnson met Ursula von der Leyen to discuss ways to cut the Gordian knot that is the Protocol and to push through this impasse so that we can engage on the areas of common concern. A new Political Declaration outlining these areas, as identified at the UK-EU Parliamentary Assembly would be timely.

As John Hume once said, “when people are divided, the only solution is agreement”.

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