We are writing today alongside the publication of the Government’s Command Paper, the Northern Ireland Protocol: The Way Forward.
Our paramount objective is, and always has been, the protection of the huge gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the preservation of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions. The hard-won gains of the peace process have transformed the political and economic life of Northern Ireland since 1998, and our commitment to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is unshakeable.
In this light, the Government agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol with the European Union as a difficult compromise under exceptional circumstances in Autumn 2019. The history of the negotiations and the issues that arose which led us to this position are set out in fuller detail in the Command Paper itself. The Protocol as negotiated sought to reconcile the need to uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions and protect Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s internal market, protect the EU Single Market and maintain a border free of checks and infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Since the Protocol was agreed, the Government has undertaken an unprecedented programme of work to try to make the Protocol work in its current form, including the delivery of four major IT systems, and putting in place extensive support schemes worth over £500 million for businesses. This includes the Trader Support Service, which has already helped businesses process more than three quarters of a million declarations since the start of the year, with nearly 40,000 traders registered for the scheme.
However, despite the huge efforts made by people and businesses in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK to adapt to the new arrangements, the Protocol has already led to considerable disruption in practice - socially, economically and politically. These burdens will only be exacerbated further as time goes on and grace periods end.
It is clear that in its current form that Protocol is not delivering on a number of its fundamental objectives, notably the explicit commitments to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and to avoid disruption to everyday lives. These are vital to its wider objective of supporting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and unless a new balance can be found, it will never be capable of being a sustainable solution in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
There has already been clear diversion of trade. Traders of all sizes have faced additional burdens. Supply chains have been disrupted and costs have increased due to new bureaucracy. The NI Executive estimated that, from January to March, about 20% of all the EU’s documentary checks on agrifood products were being conducted in respect of NI - despite the fact that Northern Ireland’s population is equivalent to just 0.5% of the EU as a whole.
At least 200 companies in Great Britain are no longer servicing the Northern Ireland market. Northern Ireland’s leading supermarkets have said that without action there would be ‘significant disruption to supply and an increase in cost for Northern Ireland consumers in the autumn, and just this morning the Chairman of Marks & Spencer warned that they had already had to make the decision to delist certain products in Northern Ireland for Christmas. And a significant number of medicines are also at risk of discontinuation.
It is not in doubt that the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland mean there will continue to be a need for special arrangements with the EU concerning Northern Ireland trade. Much of the Protocol is not contentious and the Government does not believe that scrapping the Protocol outright is the right way forward. Similarly, while the Government’s view is that the current situation in Northern Ireland would justify the use of safeguard measures under Article 16, we do not believe that seeking to invoke safeguard measures - as the EU did at the end of January - would serve the best interests of Northern Ireland at this time.
Instead, what we are seeking is a new approach based on negotiation and the finding of a new and enduring consensus. For this to stand a chance of success, it must be accompanied by ambition, imagination, genuine flexibility, and compromise. To that end, we believe the following changes are needed to put the Protocol onto a sustainable footing:
1. Removing the burdens on trade in goods within the UK while managing the practical, not theoretical, levels of risk to the EU Single Market. The Protocol itself already accepts the principle of different treatment of goods depending on their ultimate destination. We need to find a way of ensuring that full customs and sanitary and phytosanitary processes are applied only to goods genuinely destined for the EU. We are prepared to continue enforcing EU customs rules in the Irish Sea on goods going on to Ireland via Northern Ireland, but goods going to and remaining in Northern Ireland must be able to circulate freely.
2. Ensuring that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland can continue to have normal access to goods from the rest of the UK onwhich they have long relied. Applying the same principle of differentiation, the regulatory environment in Northern Ireland should tolerate different standards, allowing goods made to UK standards and regulated by UK authorities to circulate freely in Northern Ireland as long as they remain in Northern Ireland.
3. Normalising the governance basis of the Protocol so that the relationship between the UK and the EU is not ultimately policed by the EU institutions including the Court of Justice. We should return to a normal Treaty framework, similar to other international agreements including our Trade and Cooperation Agreement, in which governance and disputes are managed collectively and ultimately through international arbitration, while also ensuring a greater role for the institutions representing the people of Northern Ireland.
Rather than being a moment of tension, this is an opportunity for all sides to take a step back and work towards a stable and durable solution that delivers on everyone’s interests, while restoring the balance which is essential to the continued success of the peace process. Doing so would remove the main source of turbulence in our relations with the EU, putting them on a more positive trajectory as we all want, and allowing us to build a much more stable UK-EU relationship for the future, based around our common interests, shared values and shared history. Most of all, it would have a hugely positive effect in Northern Ireland itself. That is something we can all agree is a prize worth striving for.
THE RT HON BRANDON LEWIS CBE MP
SECRETARY OF STATE FOR NORTHERN IRELAND
THE RT HON LORD FROST CMG
MINISTER OF STATE IN THE CABINET OFFICE