Business

Angela McGowan: What do we actually mean by 'make the Protocol work'?

Pictured at this month's EU-UK partnership council in London are Brexit minister Lord Frost flanked by Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt and head of the UK Mission to the European Union Lindsay Appleby. Sitting opposite are EC vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who is flanked by Richard Szostak and Joao Vale De Almeida

SIX months into 2021 and we’re at a crossroads. We find ourselves slowly but surely getting on top of the pandemic, alongside the economy opening up. Achieving workable solutions to the NI Protocol would now truly put us on the path to sustainable recovery.

There are many opportunities and yet so many challenges with the Protocol’s implementation. What’s important is that business believes it can make the Protocol work - if the EU and UK come together in a spirit of collaboration.

But when we say “make the Protocol work” what do we actually mean? Well, for all stakeholders it is a two-part exam question. Number one, how do we ensure the Protocol is as invisible as possible to the everyday lives in our communities, and two, how do we maximise the competitive advantages it brings to unlock increased levels of investment and create new jobs.

On the first, it’s clear that the flow of medicines, food and parcels into Northern Ireland’s homes, hospitals and businesses have all benefited from existing easements. But these easements are short-term and permanent solutions to present challenges are needed quickly. This matter goes right to the heart of every community across Northern Ireland. It’s essential that the deadlock is broken. We need to see joint lasting, workable solutions without delay.

Despite the well-documented back and forth in the Press, CBI members are encouraged that both sides continue to talk and are in agreement on what the outstanding issues are. Trust and co-operation will be key to moving past the white heat of the debate and onto a successful, enduring outcome for all concerned.

After months of deliberations, we must move from talk to action. The existence of the Protocol is an acknowledgement that there are unique circumstances to be addressed. But unique circumstances demand more than off-the-shelf solutions. It's time to focus on outcomes, not legal precedent or self-interest. Let's see the people of Northern Ireland being put first, starting with a bespoke veterinary agreement and trusted trader arrangements for the movements of goods and solutions to allow medicines to flow in the UK internal market.

It’s also very important to take a moment and reflect on the size of the prize on offer. It’s undeniable that there’s real competitive advantage for the Northern Irish economy if mutual agreement on the Protocol is reached quickly.

For many firms, the Protocol is working well already and presents exciting opportunities – bridging a combined market of over 500 million people. It’s encouraging that despite the pandemic, major deals are starting to spring up in sectors ranging from construction, to dairy and plant hire. With a wave of new investment flowing into our economy, we can only hope that others will follow suit and we see an uptick in new jobs across the whole of Northern Ireland.

At the CBI, we want to see steps taken to strengthen the joint strategic approach between the UK and EU, so that Northern Ireland can capitalise on other potential prospects out there ready and waiting to be grasped.

When Northern Irish business leaders met with Lord Frost and Maros Sefcovic recently, this was raised as a key area of focus, including a request to run joint investment conferences for Northern Ireland. It was welcome news indeed that Sefcovic has agreed to take these ideas forward.

Because in this spirit of innovation and collaboration, vital momentum can be built. And in that same spirit, the CBI has three further key areas where tangible progress could be made.

First, we need to build on the existing governance structures: by establishing a business consultation group so that solutions can be agreed by the Joint Committee that are co-designed and refined with business. Second, we need to minimise red tape: by availing of all flexibilities in EU law, and by building upon the overall EU/UK relationship in areas like sanitary and phytosanitary checks through a bespoke veterinary agreement.

Last but not least, the UK and EU must agree to pragmatic solutions such as a Trusted Trader Scheme which protects the single market but ultimately minimises the impact on NI communities by protecting retail movements, in particular between GB-NI.

We understand the complexity of challenges faced. Agility, stability and collaboration have to be prioritised to secure the implementation of the Protocol, and in turn Northern Ireland’s peace and prosperity. Now more than ever, we need policy-makers to come together and deliver for all communities – unlocking business investment and putting Northern Ireland on the right track for sustainable economic recovery.

:: Angela McGowan is CBI NI director

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