Protocol Proposals

Any progress on replacing the existing EU Protocol is to be welcomed but time is now needed to assess today’s announcement and to prepare considered and constructive responses.

The DUP, in particular, should examine the new proposals in the round and give serious consideration to the future of devolved government here and the potential consequences if it is not restored..

Paramilitary threats of disruption and violence are totally unacceptable and make no constructive contribution to the debate. No one has the right nor the mandate to hold this society to ransom.

The handling of the EU withdrawal agreement has be used as the proverbial political football by the European Union , the British Government, the Tory party’s European Research Group (ERG), elements of British and Irish nationalism here and by the Irish Government who could, and should, have played a much more constructive, supportive and mature role.

This afternoon’s announcement deserves serious and calm and consideration. The objective of all parties should be to secure the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly, stabilise relationships between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain and facilitate a renewed and reformed devolved administration at Stormont.

Any New Assembly Will Still Need Major Reform

Health, education, transport, jobs, social policy, social care and the cost of living were all in turmoil before the Assembly was collapsed  – and they will remain in crisis if, pending a resolution of the Protocol problems, a new Executive is formed.

Sinn Fein and the DUP have failed to deliver on the expectations evident at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – not by mis-management, but by design.

Between them they have carved out and consolidated two sectarian power blocs.

There are many, including the supporters of both parties, who will not want to hear that. However, the evidence continues to stack up.

How else can the deliberate side-lining of integrated education and integrated housing be explained? Why is it that we have more walls dividing the community today than we had twenty five years ago? Why are the election strategies of both parties based on tribal confrontation? Why have cultural identity, tribal symbols and community background been given precedence over jobs, health and social progress?

The answer to all those questions is ‘because that’s how you build and maintain a sectarian power base’, and that is the strategy that Sinn Fein and the DUP continue to pursue.

The Good Friday Agreement was the only show in town at the time, but it was, and remains, fundamentally flawed because of the manner in which it structured the Assembly, and institutionalised sectarianism. Sinn Fein and the DUP have been exploiting that ever since.

If issues around the Protocol are resolved and the Assembly and the Executive restart, only major reform of the way it works will offer any chance of progress and the opportunity to pursue class politics.

The Assembly’s structures are no longer fit for purpose. Sinn Fein and the DUP have made sure of that. The starting point for effective devolved government has to be

Getting rid of the sectarian and inoperable structures that the two main parties, in particular, continue to use, abuse and hide behind.

A move from mandatory to voluntary coalition,

Abolition of the Community Designation requirements

Reform of the Petition of Concern to ensure that it can never again be used to veto social or equality legislation.

Then, and perhaps only then, can the sectarian power blocs be exposed and challenged and the Sinn Fein / DUP stranglehold begin to be loosened.

Of course, refusing to vote for them would work too!

Irresponsible and immature

The Workers Party has criticised what it terms the “irresponsible and politically immature” decision by Billy Hutchinson and the PUP to withdraw support for the GFA as a form of protest against the NI Protocol.

The WP claims that the decision risks political instability, shifts the focus away from resolving Protocol issues and will be seen to lend support to the inexcusable and inflammatory remarks of the European Union threatening ‘war’ in the event of the triggering of Article 16.

Assembly must stay

While there can be doubt that the Northern Ireland Protocol is causing unnecessary difficulties, politically and economically, the solutions are not to be found in brinkmanship, political posturing or in threats to collapse the Assembly.

As with most things in Northern Ireland politics, reactions to Jeffery Donaldson’s announcement have been based largely on an ‘us and them’, or a nationalist / unionist basis

The European Union’s negotiation strategy throughout this process has been, and remains unnecessarily belligerent and punitive: something that its local political fan club refuses to accept. The British government is not without blame for its approach either.

However, the reality is that beyond the tribal responses, there are issues which need to be addressed. Of course, it is possible to ensure the integrity of the EU single market by some of the means already proposed by the local business community amongst others.

Only goods which are at risk of onward travel to the Republic of Ireland pose a potential problem. Northern Ireland consumable goods do not. Workable solutions are available.

The bigger political picture however, is that the Protocol issue is being used to electioneer ahead of the Assembly poll next May. The DUP are trying to secure their position and make up ground while other parties are more than happy to do the same.

The Protocol is being used to further polarise this society, increase community tensions and consolidate the two major sectarian voting blocs.  It cannot and must not be used as an excuse to, once again, bring down the Assembly.

Our current situation demands the delivery of high-quality public services, a health and care service fit for the 21st Century, secure well-paid employment, a cleaner safer environment and a guaranteed quality of life for all. There must be no avoiding those responsibilities, no pulling the plug on the Assembly and no use of the Protocol, or any other pretext, to divert the focus away from those goals.

The Protocol, Pills and Public Ownership

The threat being levelled by big pharmaceutical companies to cease supplying a range of essential medicines to Northern Ireland has to rank as one of the lowest forms of immoral blackmail and will impact directly on the ill, the vulnerable and the long-term sick”, says Nicola Campbell, Workers Party spokesperson in Newry & Armagh.

“It is outrageous that the health and well-being of some of the most medically vulnerable in society, can be held to ransom in the pursuit of grossly inflated profits”, she said

Nicola Campbell

Delivering up to 1,000 types of prescription medicines has been declared “commercially unviable” when the current exemption from the EU’s Northern Ireland Protocol expires in January.

This raises two major issues: the politics behind the Protocol and the power of the big pharmaceutical companies.

The border in the Irish Sea does not need to be there. The EU’s insistence that it remains is punishment for having had the audacity to leave and is being used to exert political pressure by disrupting trade, frustrating everyday cooperation and now by interrupting essential medical supplies.

It is impossible to ignore the manner in which the EU has and continues to conduct its negotiations. It is a bully and continues to intimidate. Its unilateral block on Covid 19 vaccines coming into Northern Ireland earlier this year is but one example.

Strange then that there is not common cause amongst the major parties in the Assembly. Sinn Fein, in particular, seem more comfortable jeopardising the health of children, the vulnerable and the long-term ill than they are in challenging, or even upsetting, the EU they so admire.

“The big pharmaceutical companies exist to make profits. They do not primarily function for the wellbeing of the world. Their refusal to make life saving drugs available to Third World countries typifies bother their morals and their motives”, said Nicola.

It is also past time that the research, development, manufacture and distribution of medicines was brought into public ownership. Major corporations making in excess of a 40% profit on life saving and life sustaining drugs is, at best, immoral.

“Almost £4 billion of public money every year goes to fund drug research by private companies. The NHS spends in excess of £20 billion a year to purchase those medicines for patients. We are paying twice over and on terms dictated by multinational drug companies”, Nicola added

The Protocol obstacles may yet prove easier to overcome than the financial stranglehold that these companies have on our health service and on our lives.

The EU, sea borders and the threat of violence

The border in the Irish Sea does not need to be there.

From the moment the result of the referendum to leave the European Union was announced the EU and the local ‘Remain’ lobby, spearheaded by the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party, tried to scupper the outcome of the vote and even campaigned for a second referendum to reverse the result.

Between them they determined that the vote was invalid because it had been secured by ‘British nationalists’ and racists, and that people did not know what they were voting for – effectively saying that Leave voters were stupid and questioning their right to vote at all.

Blinkered View

Conveniently, this blinkered view of the result ignored the motives of the millions of Leave voters, many of whom had been pushed to the margins of society, who felt increasingly powerless and who were victims of economic inequalities and the centralisation of wealth in the greater London area.

Outside of Northern Ireland and Scotland, where the Remain motivation was, ironically, largely attributable to nationalisms, it was voters with low or no qualifications, and people with low incomes who rejected the EU project and voted to get out.

In the midst of the political posturing, the brinkmanship, the tensions between competing capitalist blocs, the political diversions and media smoke and mirrors, it is important that we remain focused on the principles of working-class unity and the efforts to construct a socialist alternative.

Years of EU wrangling later finally led to a leaving agreement that fell far short of the EU’s original plans. That does not mean that they will not stop trying to get their way.

Even the most ardent, or blinkered, EU fan cannot ignore the manner in which the EU has and continues to conduct its negotiations. It is a bully and continues to intimidate. Its unilateral block on Covid 19 vaccines coming into Northern Ireland in January is but one example.

The EU’s ambassador to the UK, insisting that  the Protocol is the only show in town, is another.

The EU’s punishment

The border in the Irish Sea does not need to be there. Their insistence that it remains is the EU’s punishment for having had the audacity to leave and is being used to exert political pressure by disrupting trade and frustrating everyday cooperation.

The violent reactions to the NI Protocol witnessed in recent weeks cannot be justified. Nor can the threat of future violence.

It was cowardly of the Loyalist Communities Council to recruit and then hide behind a 19-year-old spokesperson as they dangled the threat of further violent actions. Just as it was inexcusable of Leo Varadkar, and others, to dangle the threat of violence at the possibility of a land border.

If indeed goods brought into Northern Ireland potentially pose a risk or threat to the integrity of the EU single market, then those risks can be assessed and managed – just as they are at other EU land borders.

The disruption to trade and the political upheaval the Protocol is creating can be easily avoided by the EU acknowledging that the risks to single market goods is negligible and have the decency and integrity to withdraw its demands for land or sea borders, its threats of legal action and its resort to Article 16 at every turn.

That, of course, all assumes that the EU has any integrity or decency or that its Northern Ireland fan club will have the mettle to call it out, stop supporting its unacceptable and aggressive posturing and pull the rug out from underneath those whose response to every situation seems to be to throw petrol bombs at it.

Further reading