When politicians are in trouble, people often look to businesses for leadership and answers.
There is a freedom that comes with examining problems and devising solutions in a relative vacuum; immune to all the wider pressures that politicians have to take into account.
The NI protocol is perhaps just one of those challenges where companies have a responsibility to step in and come up with solutions, as many are experienced by companies.
One of the challenges of a negotiation is setting a meaningful deadline; a moment that all participants must respect so that all the concessions and all the compromises that could eventually lead to an agreement are on the table. The Belfast Agreement missed its “final” deadline and, as a result, was concluded on April 10, 1998, thus going down in history as the “Good Friday” Agreement.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is now approaching its 25th anniversary. He laid the foundations for a series of institutions, at the base of which is the NI Assembly, but this is currently suspended. There is no point in playing the blame game, because each side has merit and demerit in its position; better to focus on the solutions. And what better to focus the minds than the 25th anniversary which, if we can reach an agreement, could see NI moving forward with a renewed sense of confidence and determination. So let me offer this idea of the corporate sector.
The Good Friday Agreement brought together the most unlikely partners and ended the most horrific times in our history. President Clinton described it as a “surpassing work of genius” that allowed people to be British, Irish or both. Importantly, this was an agreement that had the explicit, democratically voted approval of the people of NI.
In contrast, the NI Protocol is an agreement reached between the UK government and the EU as a mechanism for NI to continue to operate in a position of “Union in the Venn Diagram” between the UK and the EU. EU while trying to stay true to the Good Friday Agreement. But, the protocol does not have the consent of the people of NI and it is devoid of corporate input as to the impacts of its operation. So how to move forward?
For businesses, we see a clear, albeit difficult, path. The NI protocol was designed as the “insurance policy” to manage the land interface between the EU and the United Kingdom, in the event of “No deal Brexit”. If the two sides had not reached a broader agreement, the protocol would have at least facilitated the UK’s orderly departure. But at the end of the day, both parties signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement – the ACT – so there is an opportunity and a need to reconsider whether the protocol is really necessary.
There are two problems. The first is to refine a pragmatic arrangement that gives the EU confidence that its single market will be protected, while ensuring that the UK’s internal market will also be respected. The second is to find a way to explain and present it, in a way that avoids polarization and promotes a sense of loss.
The technical aspects were well rehearsed and both the EU and the UK agreed that the protocol as originally agreed is unacceptable as it raises issues which were not considered by its architects, such as evidenced by all parties proposing improvements. The real challenge is to get both sides to approach it in a new way – as experts and informed partners focused on identifying the best solutions to problems.
If approached in this way, then the second challenge becomes easier to overcome. Pose the problem to the companies and they suggest that due to the existence of the TCA, the protocol is no longer needed. Instead, it should be replaced by a new chapter of the ACT – not simply as a rebrand, but as a substantially modified agreement that has been facilitated by the expansion of the ACT.
Essentially, this new chapter is to be a “Good Friday economic deal”; a text that allows companies to be “British, European or both”; that protects the three Strands and facilitates internal NI commerce; as well as North-South and East-West exchanges without barriers. The Good Friday Agreement is not defined in aspic. St Andrews, Hillsborough, Stormont House have all seen the evolution of the original; and it can be so with the Protocol. A series of problem-solving measures that both parties have come to terms with, enshrined in a new chapter of the ACT, could bring about the changes needed to overcome the conflicting aspects of the protocol and, therefore, provide a new basis on which the NI Assembly and Executive may resume.
It is a human problem; So let’s grab this human solution and get a prize truly worthy of a 25th anniversary celebration.
NI MJM Marine expands with an office in Poland