Republic of Ireland news

Compromise on protocol needed to restore government to Northern Ireland – Major

Sir John Major gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's inquiry into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement (PA)
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Compromise on all sides over the Northern Ireland Protocol will be required to restore the powersharing institutions at Stormont, former prime minister Sir John Major has said.

Sir John told a Westminster committee that the post-Brexit protocol is a “mess” and he is “baffled” about how it could have been negotiated in its current form.

The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU in 2019 as a way to unlock the logjam over securing a Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Designed as a means to keep the Irish land border free-flowing, it moved regulatory and customs checks on goods to the Irish Sea, creating economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Many unionists in Northern Ireland are vehemently opposed to arrangements they claim have weakened the region's place within the union.

The DUP is currently blocking the functioning of powersharing at Stormont and has made clear it will not allow devolution to return unless major changes to the protocol are delivered.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is investigating the effectiveness of the institutions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Appearing as a witness, the former PM outlined the steps taken when he was in power which led to the 1993 Downing Street Declaration signed by him and then taoiseach Albert Reynolds, which paved the way for the peace deal five years later.

Committee chairman Simon Hoare asked Sir John if he believed there are political leaders today prepared to take similar brave steps.

Sir John said: “You ask are there brave decisions to be taken. We are going to have a practical illustration of that with the protocol.

“The protocol is a mess. It was very poorly negotiated.

“I think some of the promises made after the protocol that there would be no checks on trade from Britain and Northern Ireland, how those promises came to be made I cannot imagine because they were patently wrong.

“The protocol needs changing. I am baffled as to how we could have reached a situation where that protocol was accepted.”

He added: “One minister said the UK signed the protocol on the basis it would be reformed.

“That must be the first agreement in history that was signed by people who decided it was useless in the first place.”

Sir John said there had been “headline after headline” which suggested the UK Government would override parts of the protocol agreement.

He said: “Even if the protocol bill was wrong that does seem to be a strange way to proceed because that sort of behaviour is pretty unwise

“We, the British, would not respond to threats of that sort. Why do we think that the European Union would?

“It is an unwise way to proceed if you want to get agreement.”

Sir John added: “From what I hear, it does seem to me that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are making progress and there is a growing degree of understanding between the three sides – the Republic, the EU and the UK Government – on how to move forward with the protocol.

“There is no such thing as a perfect protocol that will have every side dancing in the streets with joy. That is not going to happen.”

Sir John warned that failing to reach agreement over the protocol would lead to “continuing disruption”. He said this would include “Northern Ireland continuing without its own government and being effectively run by the civil service or, heaven forbid, direct rule”.

He added: “A statesmanlike response would be to recognise that nobody is going to get everything they wish, but to accept compromise in the interest of returning democratic government to Northern Ireland.

“That will not be easy for anyone.

“Statesmen who do that will succeed. Politicians who keep shouting slogans to their most extreme supporters will not.”