It has few fans, but the Northern Ireland protocol is going nowhere. The focus must be on dialogue – not rhetoric – to make it work, says Irish politician Neale Richmond.
For many of us, there is no such thing as a good Brexit, particularly those of us in Ireland, proportionately more impacted than any other EU member state, who had no control over the decision. Over the past five years, the Irish government, along with its EU partners, have taken part in a damage limitation exercise when it comes to Brexit.
We never asked for this, but we must live, sadly, with the consequences. The resulting Withdrawal Agreement and Trade and Cooperation Agreement provide some guarantees and protections but the situation now that Brexit is supposedly ‘done’ is vastly inferior to what we all enjoyed when the UK was still part of the EU.
The chief guarantee, born out of compromise, was the Northern Irish protocol element of the Withdrawal Agreement. This was reached after years of tortuous negotiations with successive proposals rejected from both the UK and EU negotiating teams. The impact Brexit could have on the situation in Northern Ireland was long flagged by the Irish government, but the minimal consideration given to this most glaring of issues by Brexiteers during the campaign paved the way for mass confusion.
There has been continued opposition from some in Northern Ireland to the protocol with instantaneous calls for it to be scrapped once it came into force. This past month we have seen several DUP politicians join a legal action against the protocol. This move is to compliment the political campaign that bluntly seeks to scrap the protocol.
It must be said, repeatedly, that no tangible or workable solutions have been presented to replace the protocol. We have seen recent attempts to rehash the already dismissed Alternative Arrangements, but these are not solutions.
Nobody likes the protocol, but it is a compromise solution that can work, it’s impact is clearly being overstated for political gain by some, as industry leaders have been much clearer on the actual impact and possible solutions.
The legal challenge is not a surprising turn of events although it is ill-judged and will only further entrench the febrile political environment, as well as creating further uncertainty for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
Alongside DUP politicians, the other parties to this case include former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, Labour peer Kate Hoey and Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister. These three individuals are a collection of some of the hardest Brexiteers that have been prominent over recent years.
There will be few with sympathy for the argument that the protocol, which prevents a hard border in Ireland and guarantees dual market access for local businesses, breaches the Good Friday Agreement particularly when nearly all those bringing this challenge opposed the Agreement originally.
The DUP’s stance on the protocol is disappointing if not surprising, the party were enthusiastic supporters of Brexit and indeed had the opportunity to shape the negotiations and solutions when they held the balance of power in Westminster from 2017 to 2019.
In the interests of doing something productive, it is time for the party to dial down the rhetoric and work towards realistic solutions. This type of politics is no good for anyone in my opinion. We all have an obligation to dial it down, to come together to discuss the legitimate concerns of unionists that should not be dismissed.
We have seen in recent days, the repeated commitment from the EU and the UK that the protocol is here to stay. The EU has generously said that it is prepared to look at a bilateral veterinary agreement with the UK as a way around many of the food safety and animal health trade barriers associated with the protocol.
Within the EU, the Irish government has repeatedly stated its desire to push for reasonable flexibility on the protocol. This where the focus must be, making the best of a bad situation. Continuous and engaged dialogue is far more important that political rhetoric and legal challenges.
Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael TD and spokesman on European Affairs
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