The UK and EU risk making Northern Ireland and its people “permanent casualties” of the post-Brexit landscape if they fail to compromise on the NI Protocol, a parliamentary report said today.
A House of Lords Protocol committee — which includes peers on opposing sides of the debate, such as the DUP’s Lord Dodds and former SDLP leader Baroness Ritchie — says both sides are at risk of prioritising “red lines” over stability in Northern Ireland.
Checks on food products are being carried out at ports here under the protocol, which was agreed between the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement of 2019.
It avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping NI in the EU single market for goods. Instead, checks take place at the ports, which has heaped additional costs and time pressures on companies.
The protocol also contributed to unrest in parts of Northern Ireland earlier this year, the report said, with tensions compounded by an abortive move by the EU to use the Article 16 mechanism to take unilateral action to restrict access to Covid-19 vaccinations in late January.
Referring to street disturbances in late March and early April, the report said: “While this unrest has many deep-seated causes, Brexit and the protocol have once again brought borders and questions of identity to the fore.
“While unionists and loyalists object to the protocol being imposed without their consent, nationalists and republicans point out that Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of its people.”
It said there was a democratic deficit, with aspects of EU law applying here without prior consent and public opinion split down the middle.
“The UK and the EU need to take urgent steps together to arrest the deepening political divide, not least by ensuring that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard both within the UK and in the EU,” it stated.
But the report said there had been upsides to the protocol for some businesses, and urged patience over its potential long-term positive impact.
“These benefits will take time to bear fruit, and are dependent on political stability and certainty. This requires all sides to work together to maximise the economic opportunities for Northern Ireland.” The report says that the protocol means that more than 300 EU directives or regulations continue to apply to Northern Ireland.
It refers to the EU-UK pact as “the most fraught, technically complex and politically divisive element of the entire Brexit process” stating that it had been “contentious” from the start. It said relations between the UK and EU were bedevilled by a “corrosive and mutual lack of trust”.
And the report found fault with both sides. There was “a lack of clarity, transparency and readiness on the part of the UK; lack of balance, understanding and flexibility on the part of the EU”. It said the situation had led to a deterioration between relationships between London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels, adding: “Unless urgent steps are taken to correct this, Northern Ireland and its people will become permanent casualties in the post-Brexit landscape.”
And it said the UK had shown a lack of transparency in how it portrayed the protocol, with denials from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Brandon Lewis that the new regime amounted to an Irish Sea border.
The report says that a veterinary agreement between the parties would lead to the elimination of a large percentage of checks at the Irish Sea border though that is opposed by the UK and its Brexit negotiator Lord Frost.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, committee chairman Lord Jay said: “There’s no doubt at the moment there’s an apparently insoluble gap between the EU’s insistence on dynamic alignment and Lord Frost’s insistence on equivalence. We think it is important that the EU and Britain recognise there is a really important issue to be resolved and that they find some way between dynamic alignment and equivalence that will allow a solution to be found.
“The goal of removing of a high proportion of the checks is a really very important goal.”
The report also referred to the risk the protocol posted to some GB companies in Northern Ireland. It quoted Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, who had told a committee hearing that “if the new frictions and new costs are higher than the profit margin, either the product or the business model becomes unviable”.
Baroness Ritchie said “goodwill, trust, patience, dialogue, agreement and consensus” would be need to overcome problems with the protocol.