Protocol resolution is within our grasp

In her address to a joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas in Dublin last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made two points of fundamental importance.

The first was that she was `very confident' of finding a solution to the protocol debate if the British government was willing, and the second was that the European Union would stand by the Good Friday Agreement and there could be no hard border on the island of Ireland.

Dr von der Leyen's carefully crafted and well received speech marked 50 years since the Republic and indeed the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC)

The EEC as it evolved into the EU has been a powerful force for progress and reconciliation, and there was a widespread sense that international boundaries in Ireland and elsewhere with all their related tensions became much less significant than had previously been the case.

Dr von der Leyen, in terms of Irish divisions, specifically said at Leinster House: "Europe was the incentive to look beyond the barbed wire", and quoted John Hume who said that the EU was practical and inspirational.

Everything changed overnight when the UK voted narrowly to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum centrally influenced by claims which have been subsequently demonstrated to be either largely misleading or entirely false.

The outcome had profound consequences, even though most recent opinion polls have indicated firmly that a re-run would produce a different result, and it essentially demonstrated that English nationalists regarded leaving the EU as a much bigger priority than maintaining the UK in its present form.

Citizens in Northern Ireland and Scotland, who voted decisively against Brexit and saw their democratically expressed wish to stay in the EU ignored, noted the message carefully.

The protocol was an inevitable part of the UK's 2020 withdrawal agreement, with senior DUP figures initially recognising its many benefits before being performing an embarrassing and increasingly aggressive u-turn under pressure from fringe elements.

However, it was always acknowledged that the arrangements surrounding the protocol were fully capable of being amended and Dr von der Leyen's Dublin intervention confirmed that an early breakthrough is eminently achievable.

With goodwill on all sides, a resolution which facilitates the return of a Stormont executive which can tackle our grave financial problems and the escalating health crisis is within our grasp.