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The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to a say in any new arrangements which replace the Brexit protocol

4 min read

Northern Ireland now exists in a halfway house between the UK and EU markets, in lockstep with Brussels but with no input into the rules we abide by and exposed to future divergence from GB standards.

On the first anniversary of his passing last month, the former SDLP leader John Hume was remembered fondly by his family, friends and former colleagues. While our outlooks were very different, I admired John’s unwavering opposition to violence. He believed progress would only be achieved through finding consensus and balanced political arrangements which ensured no single tradition could claim victory. These were principles I understood and respected. However, in recent times they have been consciously and seriously undermined by the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit agreement.

The erection of trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has added cost, complexity and delay for businesses, leaving local consumers bereft of hundreds of products freely available elsewhere in the United Kingdom. This disruption looks set to intensify.

Northern Ireland now exists in a halfway house between the UK and EU markets, in lockstep with Brussels but with no input into the rules we abide by and exposed to future divergence from GB standards.

The decision to make these fundamental alterations to Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional position without the express or advance consent of people in Northern Ireland represents a betrayal of one of the core tenets of the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. This has been destabilising socially and politically, and has left the unionist community feeling alienated. Not a single unionist elected representative supports the Protocol. 

Without recognition that cross-community consent must be central to mechanisms which replace the Protocol, future agreement is doomed to fail

Pro-Protocol parties have tried to deflect from their own role by claiming that the principle of consent and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom remain fully intact. They fail to recognise that the Protocol has already enacted constitutional change by restricting trade between different regions of UK in conflict with the Articles of Union.

They also refuse to accept that the diminution of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market – and large-scale diversion of supply chains to the Irish Republic – will inevitably and unfairly dictate the economic and social context for a future border poll. Ultimately, the constitutional guarantee afforded to the people of Northern Ireland ought to have been interpreted in a way that required prior consent for changes of this magnitude. Otherwise, a referendum would simply be a vote on membership of the UK in name only.

The government and the European Commission have made headline statements on how they intend to address ongoing concerns with the Protocol. In truth, their preferred plans could not be more different; one being that of reform and renegotiation, and the other focusing on minor adjustments. Ironically, however, both approaches find common ground in that they fail to include tangible proposals to permanently end the democratic deficit at the heart of the Protocol.

Without a practical recognition by both sides that cross-community consent must be central to mechanisms which replace the Protocol, future agreement is doomed to fail. In the same vein that businesses are choosing to reorientate trade away from the UK because of the new and oppressive rules, an increasing number of unionists are choosing to question their support for devolution. This is largely because the institutional safeguards which are intended to promote consensus and respect the views of their community have either been ignored or rewritten by the Protocol. If the UK government or the EU believes this is what it means to protect the Belfast agreement, then they are deeply misguided.

I am not one to talk up a crisis and I want to see permanent and meaningful solutions, but the reality is that the Protocol in its current form presents a rising – and potentially existential – threat to widespread support for stable and sustainable devolved government, and for the continuation of meaningful north-south co-operation on the island.

I have set out seven tests for any new arrangements which replace the Protocol and this is the lens through which the DUP will judge any outcome. These include the need to avoid any diversion of trade, give the people of Northern Ireland a say in making the laws which govern them, and ensure no new regulatory borders develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

We have made it clear to the government that it should set a deadline for the conclusion of any renegotiation process, and will be pressing for an update at the start of the new parliamentary session. Thereafter ministers must take the necessary unilateral action to protect the interests of the United Kingdom, remove the Irish Sea border and restore in full Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market in a way that fulfils the requirement for cross-community support from all traditions for lasting solutions


Jeffrey Donaldson is the MP for Lagan Valley and Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

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