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The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill should be scrapped – a trade war with the EU would harm us all

© Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire

6 min read

The UK government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has now begun its journey through Parliament. If passed, it will unilaterally set aside significant sections of the Protocol – breaching international law and risking a trade war in the middle of a cost of living crisis.

The Protocol is part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement for which Boris Johnson was quite happy to take the credit when he proclaimed he would “get Brexit done” in the 2019 election. This reckless legislation is not supported by the majority of people in Northern Ireland and should be withdrawn without delay.

The Prime Minister cites economic failure and the outcome of the recent Northern Ireland elections as excuses for ripping up the original agreement. Yet a clear majority of Assembly Members support the Protocol in principle and recent data shows economic growth in Northern Ireland is outstripping the rest of the UK. Once again, Boris Johnson ignores the truth.

This government’s reckless decision to tear up sections of the Protocol runs the risk of triggering a trade war with the EU, which could result in tariffs being placed on UK exports

The Northern Ireland Protocol is an attempt to mitigate the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, where 30 years of violence was ended by the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of power-sharing between the nationalist and unionist parties.

Brexiteers have denied the role the EU played in the peace process – from providing a neutral forum in which UK and Irish leaders could develop closer relationships to the financing of cross-community programmes, along with its role as one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Leave campaign gave scant consideration to Northern Ireland from the start, and there has been a lack of realism – and indeed honesty – regarding the destabilising effect of Brexit. The Foreign Secretary talks about the need for cross-community consent for the Protocol but ignores the fact that, like Scotland, the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU – they did not give consent for Brexit in the first place!

It is, of course, the UK’s exit from the EU, rather than the Protocol, which created a difficult situation for Northern Ireland. This was recognised by then First Minister Arlene Foster when she demanded a special trading arrangement for Northern Ireland shortly after the referendum – a request for special treatment that, when granted, was then rejected by her and her party.

There were only ever three choices which would allow the circle to be squared:

  • the return of a border on the Island of Ireland
  • close alignment between UK and EU regulatory standards, including a veterinary agreement to reduce the need for checks
  • checks to be carried out at the main Northern Ireland ports

The return of border infrastructure in Ireland was seen as an unacceptable threat to peace, but it was Boris Johnson’s choice of a “hard” Brexit, with maximal divergence from the EU, which left checks on Irish Sea crossings as the only practical option.

The issues posed by an Irish Sea border were clearly highlighted in the government’s own impact assessment, published in October 2019. This means Boris Johnson knew about the extra bureaucracy from the start, and his claim in December 2019 that there would be “no question of there being checks on goods going NI to GB or GB to NI” was disingenuous to say the least.

In dismissing the need for checks on goods that might enter the Single Market through Northern Ireland, the UK government states that current UK regulations remain similar to those of the EU – yet proposes scrapping EU standards through the ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’ and is entering trade deals that would see poorer quality goods and foodstuffs imported into Scotland and across the UK and potentially into Northern Ireland.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s claims, recent economic data shows the Northern Ireland economy outperforming that of GB, with the latest figures showing cross-border exports to the Republic of Ireland up 65 per cent. This just highlights the benefits to NI of having preferential access to the single market – the world’s largest trading bloc and seven times the size of the UK market. The Scottish government also requested to stay in the single market, in recognition of our strong vote to remain in the EU. This was completely ignored and Scotland was dragged out – to the detriment of our economy.

Business surveys by the NI Chamber of Commerce show that two thirds of local businesses have now adapted to the Protocol. 70 per cent believe their “unique trading position”, with preferential access to both the UK and the EU single market, presents opportunities for Northern Ireland – something that highlights what has been lost by Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Improvements to the implementation of the Protocol could be made to reduce bureaucracy, though the number of businesses facing significant challenges has dropped from 15 per cent to 8 per cent, but the UK is currently not engaging in any discussions on the EU’s proposed mitigations. Northern Ireland business leaders are clear, however, that while they seek improvements, they do not want the Protocol removed.

The failure to implement the Protocol has not only led to further loss of trust in this law-breaking UK government, but has blocked UK participation in Horizon Europe – the EU's key funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of €95.5bn. This disproportionately impacts researchers in Scotland who punched well above their weight in attracting EU research grants.

This government’s reckless decision to tear up sections of the Protocol runs the risk of triggering a trade war with the EU, which could result in tariffs being placed on UK exports. As Scotland produces the UK’s leading food and drink exports, including whisky and salmon, Scottish businesses could face the brunt of such retaliatory action.

It is vital the UK and EU get back round the table to discuss practical improvements to the way the Protocol is implemented – for the benefit of Northern Ireland, but also to protect people and businesses across Scotland and the UK in the middle of the cost of living crisis.

A solution can only be achieved with willingness, trust and goodwill but, sadly, these are now in very short supply and unlikely to be improved by the Prime Minister’s threat to unilaterally undermine an international agreement he signed less than three years ago.

Scotland has an escape route from all of this – being in control of our own future through independence.

Dr Philippa Whitford is the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire and the SNP Europe spokesperson at Westminster

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