Julian Smith – 2022 Speech on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The speech made by Julian Smith, the Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon, in the House of Commons on 27 June 2022.

It is a pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson).

Powerful and legitimate arguments are being made about the legal basis of this Bill, and I am sympathetic to them. Whatever the motivations and goals behind the Bill and whatever the reasons why we are at this point, it is important to look at what is practical and most likely to succeed regarding the Northern Ireland protocol and what will ensure that we show the people of Northern Ireland we are handling this issue with balance and an even hand. There are real and significant issues, as we have just heard, with the protocol—customs checks east-west and regulatory challenges to name but two. While I do not accept that the protocol is a constitutional threat to the UK, it is clear that it creates many complex challenges.

I acknowledge those issues, but there is significant support for the Northern Ireland protocol. Business organisations across Northern Ireland have been engaging in good faith with Government for over two years and looking at myriad ways to improve the deal. Their view is that the needed stability and balance can be achieved only through a negotiated settlement, and they want to preserve the opportunities of the protocol. They also want to protect the strong position of the Northern Ireland economy, which has now been shown in multiple reports to be performing among the best in the country.

There are major concerns that the advantages as well as the disadvantages of the protocol could be lost with this Bill, and that the Henry VIII clauses are there to remove almost all of the protocol should Ministers want to do so. A majority of MLAs also articulated this view in a recent letter to the Government. They accepted that changes need to be made, but they are clear that they want a negotiated approach. Voters across Northern Ireland, many of whom support the need for change, also want a UK-EU negotiated solution: 74% of voters support that.

I fear that this Bill is a kind of displacement activity from the core task of doing whatever we can to negotiate a better protocol deal for Northern Ireland. I also fear that it risks creating an impression to Unionism that a black-and-white solution is available when the reality is that, once this Bill has been dragged through the Lords and the courts and after EU responses and reprisals, compromise will ultimately be needed. Our sole focus should be on how we shift the EU into a negotiation to get the changes needed for Northern Ireland and from the right hon. Member’s party.

We risk toxifying further the discussions we are having with the EU and member states, and we risk prolonging instability for Northern Ireland business, not to mention putting the whole of the UK at risk of trade and tariff reprisals. We also risk further entrenching the view of many middle-ground voters in Northern Ireland that the desire to finish Brexit by removing the protocol is against their best interests. This issue of winning hearts and minds is important to bear in mind as we seek to persuade and cajole people to stick with the Union.

We should be looking at how we persuade the EU to make the changes needed by Unionism. We should be looking at how we encourage the Northern Ireland parties to work together on joint priorities and the EU to understand that it is in its interests to provide much greater political focus on this issue. What else can we do in other parts of the UK-EU relationship to encourage the bloc to shift? Our challenge is to push the EU to move beyond the flexibilities it is proposing and to change the text, but we also need to be realistic about how changes will be made. It will be by more suspensions, more grace periods and turning the eye, and compromises seem more likely than wholesale rewriting. Northern Ireland is very used to these types of deals—shades of grey rather than black and white.

We know that patient, quiet work can deliver. We have already seen this happen on medicines. The EU has now changed the protocol, and the Government have secured uninterrupted supplies to Northern Ireland. Not only that, but Northern Ireland’s crucial pharma sector has access to both markets. There is no reason why the medicines deal cannot be replicated across agrifood and customs if the political will is there on both sides. However, to do that we need the highest-level focus, leader to leader, with a political negotiation focused on Northern Ireland and challenging the approach the EU took over the May years.

The announcement yesterday on more joint working with France in other areas could lead to a space in which we can push forward with a crucial member state the changes needed on Northern Ireland, but it is worth bearing in mind that, from the readout of the Macron-Johnson meeting, the Northern Ireland protocol was not raised yesterday.

We also need to work out how to encourage Dublin. We need its help to get the EU to shift. Ireland should have done more to help when we needed an exit mechanism on the backstop, but we now need to get Dublin, and also the parties in Northern Ireland, to focus on a resolution. We need a new, intensive UK, Northern Ireland, Irish and EU process. That is how we will get the east-west checks resolved so there is no border down the Irish sea. That is how we will fudge issues on regulation. That is even how we might get to fix legal oversight. But we need a sustainable solution.

The task in Northern Ireland is, as ever, to secure broad consensus and that means that Government, as well as addressing the concerns of Unionism, also have to reflect on the concerns of all communities and the growing centre ground. A new intensive Northern Ireland focus in the negotiation process is the only way to ensure that this fragile but high-performing part of our country is handled with the utmost care, balance and respect.