Northern Ireland business chiefs urge PM to pull back from plan to ditch protocol

Boris Johnson warned against ‘extreme action’, as he threatens unilateral move to end checks

Adam Forrest
Monday 16 May 2022 12:07 BST

Related video: Boris Johnson pledged never to allow ‘any division down the Irish Sea’

Business leaders in Northern Ireland have urged Boris Johnson to pull back from radical unilateral action to ditch protocol checks, as the prime minister heads to Belfast for crisis talks.

Mr Johnson has said the UK will have a “necessity to act” if the EU is unwilling to drop checks on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

Ministers are reportedly ready to table legislation as early as this week to override the protocol – despite EU warnings that such a move would violate the Brexit treaty and could spark a trade war.

However, the Northern Ireland business Brexit working group – an umbrella body comprised of 14 business organisations – has written to Mr Johnson to say a compromise with the EU is still possible.

Manufacturing NI, one of the 14 groups, confirmed that the letter sent to No 10 reflected the desire of business leaders for both sides to find mutually-agreed changes to the protocol.

“We still believe that the way to resolve this is in discussion, and not in taking extreme action,” chief executive Stephen Kelly told The Independent. “There’s still road to travel.”

The manufacturing leader said: “We’re frustrated by both sides. We’re frustrated by the pace of change with the EU. We think they need to go further, faster. We’re also frustrated with the UK government in working honestly with us to find these solutions.”

Mr Kelly – who made clear that he was speaking on behalf of Manufacturing NI and not the working group – added: “It’s important that space is given to allow Northern Ireland parties to form some sort of collective view alongside business about how we resolve these issues.”

The business working group – which includes the Logistics UK, the NI Food and Drink Association and the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium – is said to be frustrated that Mr Johnson’s government has suggested that the business community wants the protocol scrapped unilaterally.

“It was being suggested that action was needed because business groups asked for it and trade was suffering because of the protocol. We asked them specifically not to launch unilateral action,” one source told The Guardian.

The protocol has helped the NI economy to “slightly outperform” the UK, according to recently-published research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

“This is partly an outcome of the Northern Irish protocol and its special status in the Brexit arrangements, including better trade and investment conditions as part of the EU’s single market and customs union,” the NIESR report found.

It comes as Republic Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney warned of a trade war, saying the entire UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) could be jeopardised if Mr Johnson plunged ahead with unilateral action.

Calling for dialogue, Mr Coveney told reporters in Brussels that the alternative was “unilateral action which means tension, rancour, stand-offs, legal challenges – and of course calls into question the functioning of the TCA itself”.

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney

Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister, has claimed the UK had provided the EU with a legal text last year explaining its proposals in “significant detail” to remove checks.

“No-one in business has seen that [legal text], so we don’t know whether their proposals work or not for Northern Ireland,” said Mr Kelly.

The Manufacturing NI chief said business leaders should be “in the room” with EU and UK diplomats as soon as possible to try to find compromise solutions. “We can’t sort the politics, but we can sort the practicalities,” he said.

Prior to Monday’s visit to Northern Ireland – where he will hold talks with the five main parties at Hillsborough Castle on the outskirts of Belfast – Mr Johnson insisted he did not favour scrapping the protocol entirely, rather amending it to reduce trade disruption.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson said there was still a “sensible landing spot” where the interests of all sides are protected – including the integrity of the EU single market, which the protocol is designed to maintain.

Speaking ahead of discussions on Monday, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said parties do not need a “pep talk” from Mr Johnson to restore power-sharing government – urging the DUP to work on “ways to smooth the implementation of the protocol”.

She said: “What we have today are repeated approaches from Boris Johnson to say they are going to take unilateral action to disapply parts of the protocol – and that is just reckless and madness.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he is still waiting to hear exactly what Mr Johnson’s government plans to do about the protocol before his party decide whether to re-enter power-sharing arrangements.

“I want to see what the government propose to do and I’ll judge it against what we have outlined is necessary to restore unionist confidence,” he told the BBC on Monday.

Sir Jeffrey suggested he wanted the protocol ditched entirely, adding: “Words don’t cut it for me, I need action.”

Ms O’Neill claimed that Mr Johnson was “shoring up the DUP’s bad behaviour”, adding: “On one hand he is saying he wants politics to work, he wants the executive to be formed, at the same time he is feeding the instability and economic uncertainty with his threats to go around the protocol.”

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