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Talk of crisis over protocol masks reality of economic opportunity

Almost a year after the protocol came into effect life in the north continues as normal. Political correspondent John Manley asks whether talk of a crisis is little more than unionist wishful thinking

A burnt out bus in Newtownabbey last month. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

LAST month when the BBC’s flagship 10 o’clock news programme included a series of reports from Northern Ireland, one of the broadcaster’s former journalists tweeted to anchor Huw Edwards.

Mike Philpott said he had reported on the region for more than three decades, before noting “a couple of burned buses do not a crisis make”.

His post reflected the thoughts of people who feel the issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol are being exaggerated by politicians and activists.

Covid notwithstanding, life in Northern Ireland over the past 11 months has changed little. Images of rioting teenagers in April were broadcast across the world but beyond a couple of isolated incidents and a few modestly attended anti-protocol rallies, it can be argued that the impact of the Irish Sea border, and public opposition to it, has been negligible.

We’ve even been spared the empty supermarket shelves and queues at petrol stations experienced in Britain as a consequence of Brexit.

But put a microphone in front of most unionist politicians and their language suddenly becomes apocalyptic.

Within weeks of the post-Brexit trade arrangements coming into place at the beginning of the year, former DUP leader Arlene Foster moved from speaking of “a gateway of opportunity” to lamenting people’s apparent inability to get Amazon deliveries.

In July, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, who months earlier had denied the existence of an Irish Sea border, claimed opposition to the protocol was “growing among many people who are not normally active in political life”.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, whose ebbing party support opinion polls suggest has been one of the more palpable impacts of the protocol, said last month that it “continues to damage our economy and the political institutions” – the same institutions he vainly threatened to walk away from at the end of October.

Yet despite the hyperbole from political unionism and the British government, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures published this week suggest the region is prospering.

The Financial Times reported that the north had the “best performance across all UK nations and regions”.

This assessment sits against an oft-repeated claim that the protocol is costing Northern Ireland £850m a year, a figure first cited by Ulster University economist Esmond Birnie, a former Ulster Unionist MLA.

Mr Birnie told The Irish News his calculations were based on a combination of the £250m administration costs covered by the British government and Stormont executive, coupled with a reported six per cent increase in costs on the £10bn worth of goods that arrive in the north from Britain every year.

He said the additional cost burden meant “several hundred” firms based in Britain had stopped shipping to Northern Ireland.

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said the ONS figures demonstrated that the protocol is “protecting our economy”.

He accused unionists of “hysterical distortions and fabrications” about economic damage.

“Throughout this year we have heard lurid warnings and claims that the Northern Ireland economy was on the verge of collapse – in fact, we have outperformed regions in Britain,” he said.

This assessment is supported by sectoral body Manufacturing NI.

When Ardagh Metal Packaging last month announced plans to build a canning plant in Belfast, creating 170 jobs, Manufacturing NI CEO Stephen Kelly said: “Our exporters are having the time of their lives at the moment.”

Mr Kelly conceded there is a new "cost and complexity in moving goods from GB" but no evidence of economic harm.

"Fundamental change brings winners and those who don’t," he said.

"For now, the protocol appears to provide just that opportunity to win more than we lose and we need to grasp it."

The Irish Sea border has found strong backing in what is on the face of it is an unlikely quarter.

Irwin Armstrong is an avowed Brexiteer, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, and a a self-styled “economic unionist”. However, the CEO and founder of Ballymena-based Ciga Healthcare is a fervent supporter of the protocol, believing it “opens doors we haven’t had before”.

His argument is based on the ‘best of both worlds’ scenario that allows businesses in the north to trade with Britain and the EU. He describes the protocol as a “game changer” that has the potential to transform the regional economy.

Unlike political unionists, who argue that the new trading regime undermines ties with Britain, Mr Armstrong argues that the way to secure the union is through “increased prosperity for everybody”.

“It’s an opportunity to get foreign direct investment that we haven’t had before and a chance to turn Northern Ireland around – it's a game changer,” he told The Irish News.

“I tell unionist politicians that the best way to secure the union is to make sure a majority of people vote for it, and if we have a booming economy and jobs then the chance of people voting for a united Ireland is significantly diminished.”

The Ciga CEO said unionist politicians are “hung up on the semantics of the constitutional argument and can’t see the wood for the trees”.

 

The belief that unionist politicians were exaggerating concerns about the protocol appears to have been confirmed in academic research conducted on behalf of the University of Liverpool.

The authors of last month’s report said the evidence pointed to a “consensus or near consensus and not a crisis”.

Director of the university’s Institute of Irish Studies Professor Peter Shirlow said the public supported negotiations and discussions ahead of the British government triggering Article 16.

“There is no evidence here of mass rejection, even among unionists, of the mitigations/easements advanced by the EU,” he said.

“Similarly, there is no nationalist/republican rejection of key UK government proposals. This is not what is assumed within media and political commentary.”

Talking up a crisis has clearly shaped the news headlines in 2021 but experience on the ground suggests the reality is somewhat different.

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