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Professor Peter Shirlow: Protocol is best opportunity in generation for peace dividend

Prof Peter Shirlow says 'megaphone diplomacy' has obscured the recognition of the protocol's opportunities. Picture by Mal McCann

THE Northern Ireland Protocol is a process and not an event. A process that requires a politics to build a shared, sustainable prosperity and match the prospects of private sector investment.

Such investment has already started and will lift the economy from being consumption-based to one that is more innovative and production centred. Shared prosperity can create unique opportunities to sustain peace.

There will be nothing as expensive and costly to our shared future if we do not wake up to the fact that this is the best opportunity, in a generation, to deliver a peace dividend. The stakes could not be higher. We are already within an exceptional space in which two-thirds of businesses recognise opportunity and FDI interest is at an historic high.

Northern Ireland is the only place in the world whose goods exports have full and free access to the EU and GB markets. Unlike Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway we do not have to contribute financially to gain access to the former. It is a form of uniqueness that is an incentive for business, investors, and others to think outside traditional boxes. Unfortunately, the rehearsal of problems undermines the voicing of potential.

Megaphone diplomacy has obscured the recognition of opportunity within the usual wearisome forms of identity politics and the tensions on display between the EU and the UK. The expense of a missed opportunity lies within a volatile political landscape which if unresolved will undermine the conditions of stability that investors require.

As the UK and EU tussle over a trust-based versus rules-based approach, they must recognise that identity tensions grow. The job therefore is to reconcile what are valid positions and concerns but ones that are presently undermined by stubbornness.

The north's future is being framed by a wider geopolitical game in which we have insufficient say. A reminder that we need leadership and political stretching that framed the Good Friday Agreement and its impressive societal and stabilising effects.

The protocol has driven inter-community agreement - in this case disapproval of checks on goods either north-south or east-west. That disapproval should sit at the centre of present negotiations. If the protocol is not about achieving positive outcomes for the people who live here then it lacks validity.

We deserve the opportunities that will unfold and the right to frame outcomes. If negotiators are serious, they must demonstrate their rhetoric of protecting the peace process through bespoke delivery that protects the dynamic of trade north-south and east-west trade. We cannot remain as a pawn.

Political inertia in London and Brussels is the very reason why new ideas and inputs are required, reframing the discourse from obstacles to opportunities.

Step forward the Northern Ireland Executive who need to locate and promote how they will play the breaking ball of present and future negotiations. It has to elbow its way into the centre of negotiations with a plan for the facilitation of investment and evidence for the mitigations required. It should be demanding a voice within the protocol committees and a re-invigoration of strands 2 and 3 of the Good Friday Agreement.

The executive must act upon its own means, reverse its supplicant role regarding external political tensions, and prove its potential as a political entity. Businesses are talking investment, market growth and emerging export opportunities. Why is that voice not centre stage as proof of potential being realised? Do we lack a political maturity when it comes to outlining success even within difficulties? It would help ease the mood if the business sectors confirmed the positives.

Executive members must take responsibility for making the protocol work and prove they are prepared for whatever outcome emerges. We require a reversal of the present commentary and criticism upon UK-EU negotiations. We deserve politicians who are more than mere observers of a geopolitical game. Politics has to shift into a concentration upon possibilities and prospects. Even within the politics of variant constitutional positions, building a stronger and sustainable economy will mean collective executive success. Similarly, the protocol has the ability to build a stronger all-island economy as well as re-constructing the Northern Ireland to GB dynamic. Akin to the proverb, ‘It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice’.

A sustainable peace dividend can emerge if local political leadership considerably examines emerging opportunities. The EU, UK and Irish governments on Wednesday each committed to the common purpose of the peace process and the totality of relationships, even though they are yet to find agreement. The missing piece of that jigsaw remains the executive.


:: Professor Peter Shirlow is director of Irish Studies at University of Liverpool

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