The NI Protocol lacks democratic legitimacy and must be eliminated

No one can stand in the Box Office anymore and argue that the Protocol protects peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The people have spoken. All unionist candidates who stood for election opposed the Protocol. Forty percent of all votes cast were explicitly for anti-Protocol parties: 360,000 in all. The Northern Ireland peace process has only advanced with unionist and nationalist consent, and our political institutions depend on it. However, not a single Unionist supports the Protocol.

It is the Protocol, not Brexit, that has created a border in the Irish Sea. As such, it represents an existential threat to the future of our place in the Union. No Conservative and Unionist government can sit idly by and watch the pro-union people of Northern Ireland become increasingly separated from the rest of the UK. The Irish Sea border controls are symptomatic of the underlying problem, that Northern Ireland is subject to a different set of laws imposed by a foreign entity with no elected representative of its people having a say.

It is important to note that currently only a fraction of the Protocol is being imposed. When it is fully implemented and the rest of the UK cuts its own furrow, Northern Ireland will be so far removed from Britain that levers from Westminster on our health services, response to Covid or even financial assistance for the economy will be very limited.

But this will not only affect Northern Ireland; the people of Britain will also feel the impact. Just a few weeks ago, Defra had to shelve animal welfare protections because the NI Protocol would have prevented them from being applied across the UK. He has also limited action by Westminster to ban ineffective Covid test kits. It is absurd for our government to give up a say in large swaths of the laws that govern our economy, which so directly affect the people of Northern Ireland.

The DUP is seeking the restoration of democratic decision-making to the NI Assembly, but there must be a firm foundation, which means replacing the democratic deficit created by the Protocol. Beyond costing our economy £100,000 an hour, it has raised transport costs and put a border between us and our biggest trading partner. It has jeopardized our drug supply during a pandemic.

While a year ago Brussels was closed to the need for change, we have since convinced many of the merits of our case. The Government knows that the Protocol does not have unionist support and Brussels recognizes that it has cast a long shadow over the political arrangements in Northern Ireland.

The time has come for the government to act. The Irish Sea border must urgently disappear, replacing the Protocol with agreements that restore our place within the UK’s internal market. We will judge any new arrangements against our seven tests to determine whether they respect NI’s position as part of the UK. Any new arrangement must firstly comply with Article 6 of the Articles of Union, which requires everyone in the UK to be entitled to the same privileges. It must, secondly and thirdly, prevent any diversion of trade and any borders in the Irish Sea. It must give the people of Northern Ireland a voice in making the laws that govern them.

Checks should no longer be applied to goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It must ensure that no new regulatory barriers are developed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, unless agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. Finally, the letter and spirit of Northern Ireland’s constitutional guarantee requiring the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland to any diminution of their status within the United Kingdom must be reserved.

But it is not enough for unionists to complain. We must follow a dual strategy to prevent salami from slicing up our constitutional position. That means legislative change that provides significant protection for the union. Given the recent ruling by the Belfast Court of Appeal, which has shown the fragility of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement’s much vaunted principle of consent, we must now press for the guarantees we were promised in 1998 to be enshrined in law.

I would suggest that a further provision be added to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, stating that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the UK, from 1998, must require the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, either through a referendum, or a cross-community vote by the NI Assembly.

Such a provision would be fully consistent with the implication of the Government’s publicly stated position in relation to Northern Ireland and gives primacy to its people. No one who believes in the democratic process could plausibly oppose it. After the election and as a way to provide more confidence to the people of NI, I will be pressing for the Government to carry out said amendment. Our ultimate protection will not be found in constitutions but in the will of the people. That is why we must move in the right direction by lifting the shadow of the Protocol and freeing ourselves to focus on the issues that matter.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

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