Ex-Northern Ireland Secretary Warns Westminster Is Using The Province For 'Other Agendas'
A former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has warned that some figures in Westminster are using it for their own agendas as the government moves closer to unilateral action on the protocol.
Speaking on this week's episode of PoliticsHome's podcast The Rundown, Julian Smith, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary from 2019-2020, urged the UK and European Union to reach a negotiated settlement on the post-Brexit treaty for Northern Ireland, amid a growing belief that the UK plans to overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol without agreement with Brussels.
Smith urged the EU to "shift" its negotiation position, saying it would be essential in persuading the Democratic Unionist Party, which has expressed severe opposition to the protocol, to form a government in Stormont.
“The message I'm trying to communicate to EU interlocutors is: you might not want to shift for the ERG [European Research Group of backbench Conservative MPs], but do listen to Northern Ireland and political unionism on what it needs to give them,” he explained.
But he stressed that most businesses in Northern Ireland do not share the ambition of some Conservative MPs to see the treaty scrapped altogether, as it grants them advantageous access to both the British and European markets.
"I understand they've been very clear with the UK government that while there are issues with the protocol, they like the fact that Northern Ireland faces both ways, and that Northern Ireland is actually seeing quite a lot of inward investment as a result of the protocol," the Tory MP for Skipton and Ripon said.
On Thursday foreign secretary Liz Truss warned her EU opposite number, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, that the government "would have no choice but to act" unless the EU agrees to more concessions in their negotiations over the protocol.
Sefcovic said the bloc had already tabled "wide-ranging and impactful solutions" that would "substantially improve the way the Protocol is implemented", and reiterated the EU's concern that "the UK government intends to embark on the path of unilateral action".
Smith argued that rather than providing a quick fix to the protocol, unilateral action would actually result in another protracted process, and that a negotiated settlement with the European Commission "will ultimately be a quicker response” to the issues that have arisen since it was implemented.
He believed there was a "question" facing Westminster of just how committed some MPs are to Northern Ireland, and whether it is "sometimes used for other agendas".
"My priority as somebody that really wants to stand up for Northern Ireland is to make sure as we go through the coming weeks that Northern Ireland’s priorities and requirements are front and center, and not being used as a vehicle for other people's priorities,” Smith explained.
He questioned whether a "nationalist, hard-Brexit style" approach to unionism in Westminster was the best way to convince people in Northern Ireland, as well as those in Scotland, to support remaining part of the UK.
“I grew up in Scotland where the SNP is obviously been powering ahead," he said.
"There is a world where we – the United Kingdom – can attract and make the argument and make the case in a humble fashion, that for issues like security, defence and the economy, staying in the Union is the right thing to do. There’s no age restraint or religious restraint on that."
Smith added: “But the way we go about making those arguments is key.
"The big historical question will be: is a machismo strategy on the Union, largely driven by an English sort of nationalist, hard Brexit style approach, the route to attracting these voters?
"Or is something which is more attuned to understanding the reasons why they're tempted in the ways they are, and then making the argument back – is that the better strategy?
"The big question is, what is the best route?"
- Listen to the full interview with Julian Smith, plus The Irish Time's Finn McRedmond with PoliticsHome's Adam Payne and Alain Tolhurst on The Rundown podcast from PoliticsHome, out Thursday evening wherever you get your podcasts.
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