Our first priority in Northern Ireland will always be the preservation of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and peace and security in Northern Ireland. So much of the progress we have seen rests on the Agreement. It represents a triumph of compromise and tolerance after decades of instability, and is the foundation on which the modern, thriving Northern Ireland is built.
We want to see the return of the Executive and will work with them in the best interests of Northern Ireland. The reality, however, is that the power-sharing institutions have not been fully functioning since 3 February, as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the strain it has put on businesses and communities in Northern Ireland.
All parties agree that the current arrangements are not working. The Protocol has not yet been implemented in full due to the operation of grace periods and easements. The practical problems are clear for all to see:
- EU customs procedures for moving goods within the UK have already meant companies are facing significant costs and paperwork. Some businesses have stopped this trade altogether
- Rules on taxation mean that citizens in Northern Ireland are unable to benefit fully from the same advantages as the rest of the UK, like the reduction in VAT on solar panels.
- Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) rules mean that producers face onerous restrictions, including veterinary certification, in order to sell food stuffs in shops in Northern Ireland.
These challenges have been sharpened by the challenges of post-COVID economic recovery.
I have had six months of negotiations with Vice-President Maros Sefcovic. This follows a year of discussions by my predecessor. The UK has proposed what we believe to be a comprehensive and reasonable solution to deliver on the objectives of the Protocol. This includes a trusted trader scheme, with strict enforcement, to provide the EU with real time commercial data, giving them confidence that goods intended for Northern Ireland are not entering the EU Single Market. With robust penalties for those who seek to abuse the system. We are already sharing over 1 million rows of goods movement data with the EU every week. Our solution would meet both our and the EU’s original objectives for the Protocol. It would address the frictions in East-West trade, while protecting the EU Single Market and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
The challenge is that this solution requires a change to the Protocol itself, but the EU’s mandate does not allow the Protocol to be changed. That is why the EU’s current proposals are not able to address the fundamental concerns.
We will always take the necessary decisions to preserve peace and stability in Northern Ireland. That is why the Government will introduce legislation in the coming weeks to make the required changes to the Protocol and put it on a sustainable footing. We intend to deliver a durable and lasting solution that commands the broadest possible cross-community support.
I want to be clear that this is not about scrapping the Protocol. Our aim is to deliver on the Protocol’s objectives. We will cement those provisions which are working in the Protocol, including the Common Travel Area, the Single Electricity Market and North-South cooperation, whilst fixing those elements that aren’t: on the movement of goods, goods regulation, VAT, subsidy control, and governance. We are clear that the Bill is consistent with international law – and in support of our prior obligations in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU. In parallel with the legislation being introduced, we remain open to further talks if we can achieve the same outcome through a negotiated settlement. However, no outcome can restore the delicate balance of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement if it does not address the real-world problems facing Northern Ireland. The scale of change needed means this is only possible by changing the Protocol itself.
The urgency of the situation means that we cannot delay further. Only by taking this measured and proportionate action can we live up to our commitments to all communities of Northern Ireland, and restore the primacy of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP