Business

Wishing Protocol away is a denial of our geographical uniqueness

OVER the last few weeks the shenanigans at the top of the DUP have been bewildering to observe, to analyse and to understand. The dust has now settled on a new era for that party, with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson at the helm.

And it seems likely that over the next number of months Sir Jeffrey will assume the role of First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly and good luck to him. It is to be hoped that alongside the deputy First Minister he can help steer Northern Ireland to more stable political waters.

It would actually be welcome if we could be bored by local politics for a while. That would be a sign that ordinary politics has taken over from the drama and the crisis, two things that some of our local parties seem almost addicted to.

Throughout the earlier, contested campaign for DUP leadership both Donaldson and his opponent Edwin Poots - surely his was the most pyrrhic victory ever recorded? - made the Northern Ireland protocol their absolute number one priority.

The language may have swayed from ‘removal’ to ‘significantly amend’, but it was always the Protocol and it was always in a negative light.

Similar sentiments are expressed from right across the unionist political spectrum, with the political battle extended into the courts and on to the streets. It must be said though that the days of monster rallies are long gone (Jamie Bryson and co will have been bitterly disappointed at the low numbers who turned up at high profile protest meeting in Newtownards recently).

When the estimates of the size of the crowd are in their hundreds and not thousands, it is a sure sign that the majority of the population, unionist or otherwise, have other priorities, are shrugging their shoulders.

If I was in a position to offer long term strategic advice to political unionism in Northern Ireland it would be very simple. The successful pursuit of stability and prosperity is the surest way of maintaining ‘the precious Union’ as Theresa May was so fond of referring to the UK during her robotic leadership.

A thriving economy, in which we equitably share opportunity, where we can be reasonably sure our children will have a shot at getting a decent job, would inevitably lead to a more settled society and community. In a shared and prosperous environment the status quo is more accepted.

When those things are absent, when identity is disrespected and our young people continue to tune out and drift away, of course the clamour for structural, political change grows and in fact becomes irresistible.

It actually baffles me how Unionist leaders don’t see this, or if they do, how they continue with the blinkers.

The path to long term sustainable economic prosperity is the one which begins with the Protocol. Making it work, addressing and dealing with the practical issues, exploiting our unique status as a region with access to the UK and EU markets, that’s where this region - call it whatever you damn well please - not only stabilises but thrives.

In an excellent assessment in this paper last week, Angela McGowan set out the view of the CBI and I would suggest of the wider business community. She wrote: “It’s 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.”

The Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, representing all sectors of the economy, has also pointed to the potential benefits of the Protocol. In the last month alone Connex, the Newry-based manufacturer of bathrooms, announced 50 new jobs at its Newry site in a £4.6m investment, citing its servicing of GB and RoI markets; PwC announced 800 new high quality well paid jobs in Belfast; Indian company Hinduja Global Solutions announced 560 jobs; Denroy will bring 130 new jobs to Bangor. All of this within the last month alone!

Invest NI is already focusing on the Protocol benefits and opportunities as it seeks to attract further inward investment. Other regions are casting envious eyes at Northern Ireland and our unique status.

The Protocol is in place precisely because we are unique in our geography and our politics. Simply wishing it away is a denial of that status, a head in the sand approach to politics which serves no one and which in fact economically damages Northern Ireland. Again, it is baffling why this obvious outcome of the anti-Protocol campaign is not clear to those heading up the main Unionist parties.

Arlene Foster clearly did recognise the potential of the Protocol at the beginning of this year when she called it a ‘gateway of opportunity.’ It’s such a pity that view lasted for little more than 24 hours and probably went some way to ensuring she was deposed as leader a few months later.

The Unionist leader who takes a long term view of the current problems and opportunities will serve his or her political purpose better than any other.

Who will be the one to seek practical solutions to the short term problems thrown up by the implementation of the Protocol, who stands firm against the apparent outrage which doesn't actually exist among the general public? Will that be Jeffrey Donaldson, Doug Beattie, or someone yet to emerge in the public eye?

I hope it happens soon, because we will all be better off.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Claire Aiken

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