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In Northern Ireland, businesses want to move on from Brexit

, March 24, 2023, 0 Comments

The UK government has comfortably won a parliament vote on its new Northern Ireland-EU deal. The Windsor Framework now looks set to be implemented. Most business leaders in Northern Ireland are happy about that.

northern-ireland-brexit-marketexpress-inIn Northern Ireland, things are rarely black and white. Rather they’re green, orange and any number of shades in between.

The region has been the central issue in EU-UK negotiations since the 2016 Brexit vote. The main question: Where should the border separating the EU single market from the UK market be?

The EU and the UK have repeatedly agreed that border should not be on the island of Ireland, due to the toxic legacy of ‘The Troubles’ — the 1969-1998 conflict which claimed more than 3,500 lives and was ended with the Good Friday Agreement. Most people in Northern Ireland agree, polls say.

The compromise is the so-called ‘Irish Sea border’, where goods are checked before moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Protocol includes this law but its implementation in 2021 infuriated some members of Northern Ireland’s pro-British unionist community, who saw it as diluting their link to the UK.

They and others also bemoaned other aspects of its practical application, saying it imposed vast levels of needless bureaucracy on businesses and thwarted trade, introducing curbs on everything from sausages to pets.

Give us a brake

The row became very bitter. It threatened several times to spiral into a trade war when Boris Johnson was UK prime minister. But under Rishi Sunak, the EU and the UK have worked hard on finding a solution. Last month, Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled a new plan in what was by far the warmest EU-UK summit since Brexit.

The Windsor Framework removes the vast majority of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, amid other changes. Sunak said it made Northern Ireland the “world’s most exciting economic zone” because of its dual access to the EU and UK markets.

Politicians from all sides across the UK and Ireland welcomed it as a major breakthrough. But many unionists still aren’t happy. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest unionist party and second biggest party in Northern Ireland behind the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, says it is still not enough.

On March 22, Sunak’s government held a vote int he House of Commons on an aspect of the framework, the ‘Stormont Brake’ mechanism, in which the Northern Irish parliament and the UK government can prevent new EU laws from being introduced in Northern Ireland.

The vote passed by a massive 515 votes to 29, with even the opposition supporting it. The DUP, which sits in both Stormont and the House of Commons, voted against it along with 22 rebels from the Eurosceptic wing of Sunak’s Conservative Party. Former Prime Ministers Johnson and Liz Truss, both keen to undermine Sunak, were among them.

A business opportunity

However, Sunak does not need DUP support and it is expected that the Windsor Framework will proceed to implementation regardless. He says there will be no new negotiations. Businesses in the region are largely supportive and are keen to move on after almost a decade of uncertainty.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, says the deal confirms a long-established reality — that the border on the island of Ireland cannot return because of Brexit.

“The reality is that the tectonic plates aren’t going to shift on the island of Ireland,” he told DW. “And it isn’t going to be moved to the middle of the Caribbean. This is always going to be the place where the EU single market and the UK’s internal market meet.”

Kelly represents Northern Irish manufacturers. He says that their own surveys show that approximately one in five of their members have reported that since the Protocol came in, their British suppliers stopped sending goods to Northern Ireland due to customs burdens.

He expects that the new deal will change this. “Our view is that the framework gives a great basis to reopen those supply lines, make them more secure and to maintain Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s market,” he said. “But also to maintain Northern Ireland’s position in the EU’s market for goods of which we’ve seen quite a significant benefit from.”

On Sunak’s assertion that Northern Ireland is now the ‘world’s most exciting economic zone,’ Kelly laughed, and said that it doesn’t feel like that looking out of the window on a cold, grey day in Derry. But he adds there is genuine “validity” to the claim, given that Northern Ireland has unique access to both markets.

“Certainly when it comes to exports and sales of goods and as a location in terms of attracting inward investment, then if we get this protocol stuff and the politics around it sorted, then we know that we’re capable of making the most of that,” he said.

“We’re left with a unique opportunity and proposition that we’re able to take to the world…we have something now that no one else has and we want to make the most of it.”

Politics vs. economics

The vast majority of business groups echo his sentiments. The general public too is supportive. A recent poll by the Irish News-Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool found that three-quarters of people who expressed an opinion on the new deal supported it.

None of that has influenced the DUP position, which focuses its opposition on constitutional matters — specifically the application of EU law in Northern Ireland.

They say that the mechanism voted upon on Wednesday – the ‘Stormont Brake’ — will not stop new laws from being introduced.

“It remains the case that the ‘brake’ is not designed for, and therefore cannot apply, to the EU law which is already in place and for which no consent has been given for its application,” the party said in a statement.

Even if their opposition does not stop the new legislation, it is likely to mean that they will not return to Northern Ireland’s power-sharing deal with the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein any time soon. That has not functioned for four of the last six years amid deep divisions between the parties.

At the last election in May 2022, Sinn Fein became the biggest party for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history. That would give them the symbolically significant post of First Minister in any government.

Some political commentators speculate that as this is something the DUP does not want to countenance, it is hoping it can force another election and come out on top again, rather than return to government as a perceived ‘junior’ party to Sinn Fein.

That’s the green and the orange again, complicating the black and white. In that sense, political change still seems a long way off in Northern Ireland. But those speaking for the business side increasingly just want to move on.