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Dialogue, patience, and trust needed to overcome the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol impasse, says Lords report

Thursday 29 July 2021

The House of Lords Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Committee has today published a report calling on the UK and EU urgently to resolve their differences if Northern Ireland and its people are not to become permanent casualties of the Brexit process.

The report finds that first Brexit and then the Protocol have once again brought borders and questions of identity in Northern Ireland to the fore. While many unionists and loyalists object to the Protocol being imposed without their consent, many nationalists and republicans point out that Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of its people. This is against the backdrop of a democratic deficit, whereby significant aspects of EU law apply to Northern Ireland without its prior consent. Public opinion in Northern Ireland on the Protocol is split down the middle, deepening existing political and community divisions, and contributing to social unrest.

The committee finds that identifying solutions to the problems created by the Protocol has been hampered by a fundamentally flawed approach by both the UK and EU: lack of clarity, transparency and readiness on the part of the UK; lack of balance, understanding and flexibility on the part of the EU. While the EU mistrusts the UK’s good faith, the UK objects to the EU’s disproportionate approach. This has contributed to a serious deterioration in relations between London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels.

The committee’s membership, drawn from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, has a wide range of expertise, and includes senior representatives of the unionist and nationalist communities. Notwithstanding the different views of its members on the Protocol, the report was agreed unanimously, demonstrating the committee’s united commitment to the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Lord Jay of Ewelme, Chair of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Committee, said:

“The publication last week of the Government’s proposals for a new way forward on the Protocol is a significant development that would fundamentally alter the way in which the Protocol operates.

“As we await the EU’s considered response, the clear message from our report and the evidence we have heard is that both the UK and the EU need to compromise in the interests of Northern Ireland. That won’t be easy, but it is an absolute necessity that the UK and the EU should now work together urgently to identify solutions if Northern Ireland is not to become a permanent casualty of the Brexit process. We will return to these issues in September.

“The tensions over the Protocol currently seem insoluble. Yet that was also true of the political situation during the Troubles. But the peace process ultimately took root and flourished, through a process of time, patience, dialogue, and most of all trust. Those same qualities are now needed to address the problems that Brexit and the Protocol present.”

The committee's other key findings and recommendations include:

  • Trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been significantly disrupted by the administrative costs to businesses of compliance with the Protocol. This has created a risk that British businesses will withdraw from the Northern Ireland market. There are particularly serious concerns about the impact on supply of medicines and medical products to Northern Ireland in the absence of further mitigating measures.
  • Yet there are also potential economic opportunities, in terms of dual access to the UK and EU markets, North-South trade and foreign direct investment. These benefits will take time to bear fruit, and are dependent on political stability and certainty. This requires all sides to work together to maximise the economic opportunities for Northern Ireland.
  • Business representatives identified a host of practical and specific measures that should be taken to ease the economic burden of the Protocol. Resolving these issues is not easy, and they will not be enough to assuage those who disagree with the Protocol in principle. Nevertheless, the UK and the EU urgently need to agree practical steps that would ensure the proportionate application of the Protocol.
  • One of the most significant single measures would be a UK-EU SPS/veterinary agreement. The EU argues that an agreement on the basis of dynamic alignment could reduce the volume of checks by up to 80%, but the UK favours an equivalence model. The UK and the EU need to find a route to compromise. A failure to do so would demonstrate that Northern Ireland’s political and economic stability is a lower priority for both than maintaining their respective red lines.
  • While there is no apparent way to eliminate the democratic deficit inherent in the Protocol, steps need to be taken to mitigate it by maximising Northern Ireland’s influence both within the UK and with the EU. The Northern Ireland Executive has a key role to play in exerting such influence.
  • Both sides have an obligation to consider alternatives to the Protocol in the event that the Northern Ireland Assembly does not support the continued operation of key aspects of the Protocol. In the meantime, there is an equal obligation on them to find resolutions within the Protocol in a renewed spirit of urgency, partnership and trust.

The report will be available on the committee's website shortly after publication.

To request an embargoed copy of the report, or bid for an interview with the committee’s chair, Lord Jay of Ewelme, please contact:

Dervish Mertcan mertcand@parliament.uk  / 020 7219 6640

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