DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP argues that the removal of the Northern Ireland Protocol can strengthen relationships between the UK and Ireland but admits that the approach is not “risk free”. David Whelan sits down with the new party leader.
Advocating for the removal of the Protocol, Donaldson believes in the existence of a solution which ensures the free movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland while also providing arrangements to satisfy the EU that standards are being upheld.
The new party leader acknowledges a frustration that the British Government has not yet moved to invoke Article 16 – which would allow the UK to suspend parts of the Brexit deal but would also undoubtedly sour relations with the EU further and trigger a lengthy legal process – despite an acknowledgement from Brexit Minister David Frost that conditions have now been met to do so.
Although he has called for the Protocol to be removed, Donaldson hints at some flexibility in his approach to solving the “frictions” of the Protocol.
Speaking in the context of the UK’s proposals to renegotiate the Protocol, which have been widely dismissed within the EU, Donaldson says: “I am focused on solutions. What matters less to me is the vehicle to arrive at those solutions and what matters more is that we get to them.”
Put to him that pursuing drastic changes to an agreement, which the UK Government has already legally agreed to implement, could risk the securities provided by that agreement, including an open border on the island of Ireland, Donaldson says: “I do not think there is a huge conflict between protecting the integrity of the UK internal market and protecting the integrity of the EU single market.
“There is no process that is risk-free, but I am confident that we can get practical solutions that meet the needs of the UK, restore Northern Ireland’s place fully within the UK internal market and which remove the Irish Sea border, but which enable the European Union to be satisfied that its single market is also protected.”
Adding: “It is not in the interest of anyone where we end up in a situation where we have hard borders, whether that is an Irish Sea border, or a land border.”
Ratified as the new leader of the North’s largest political party on 30 June 2021, Donaldson’s turbulent elevation played out in the public eye and followed the involuntary resignation of two party leaders in just a matter of weeks, as well as the party’s first ever leadership contest.
While Donaldson’s focus has turned to Stormont, where he has ambitions to take a seat and lead as First Minister, his initial weeks as the party’s fifth leader in its 50-year history, coincided with an incredibly busy period for the North’s MPs in Westminster, centred on the UK Government’s proposals for the Northern Ireland Protocol and conflict legacy.
The MP believes that post-Brexit, those involved in the negotiations are obligated to look at developing new relationships. He illustrates a desire to establish better relationships between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, as well as the UK Government and Irish Government. The perceived damage to the east-west relationship caused by the Protocol, he argues, is upsetting the “delicate balance” of the three interlocking and interdependent relationships set out by the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrew’s Agreement.
“The problem is that at the moment, the east-west relationship, that relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, has been harmed by the Protocol. The Agreement says that those relationships are interlocking and interdependent and so if you harm one, then you harm them all.
“It is not in the interest of anyone where we end up in a situation where we have hard borders, whether that is an Irish Sea border, or a land border.”
“Let’s remove the harm that the Protocol is causing to that east-west relationship and that then opens up the opportunity to strengthen the relationships between the UK and Republic of Ireland. There are benefits for everyone by resolving this.”
Of course, frictions within the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol must be viewed in the wider context of being a consequence of Brexit. Donaldson’s party not only campaigned for Brexit but held an influential position within Westminster at a time when the British Government brought forward its various Brexit proposals.
Most notably, the DUP voted against former Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement that would have retained the whole of the UK in the customs union and a backstop for the North. So, with hindsight does the MP believe his party would have done anything differently?
“It was a frustrating period because we were clear that we wanted to support a Brexit that delivered for all of the UK and specifically for Northern Ireland,” he replies. “I’m afraid neither Mrs May’s backstop proposal nor Boris Johnson’s Protocol achieve those objectives, in my opinion.”
Conveniently, Donaldson says: “For me, rather than dwelling on the past and how we got here, my focus is on how we resolved these issues, how we overcome the challenges in front of us and how we get an outcome that works for Northern Ireland.”
Donaldson was speaking shortly after a visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Dublin to announce the Commission’s approval for Ireland’s Recovery and Resilience (RRF) post-Covid package of investment and reforms that will see Brussels contribute €989 million of its €750 billion NextGenerationEU fund to Irish projects. In the context of a global push for economic recovery from the pandemic, the package is expected to raise GDP between 0.3 per cent and 0.5 per cent by 2026.
Following Brexit, Northern Ireland is not eligible to access the fund and, hitherto, the UK has yet to announce a date for the Chancellor’s spending review, an outline of where the UK intends to invest.
However, Donaldson is confident that Northern Ireland will benefit “significantly” from the UK’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
“The reality is that the UK contributed far more to the EU than it ever got back, so, we mustn’t lose sight of that,” he says. Outlining that he has already engaged the Prime Minister on the need for investment he says, “I want to see significant investment in our infrastructure in Northern Ireland including our public transport, our airports, our ports and our road network. If we are going to build a strong economy, we need the infrastructure in place to support it.”
Donaldson is adamant that the North’s position within the UK continues to outweigh any benefit associated with EU membership.
“When you look at the Covid pandemic, no one can seriously argue that Northern Ireland did anything other than benefit from being part of the UK,” he states.
Highlighting the role of free-at-the-point-of-access NHS, supports offered to businesses and the UK’s vaccination programme during the pandemic, he says: “I think the benefits of being part of the UK heavily outweigh any disbenefit that may have arisen from leaving the European Union. In the years to come, we will see significant investment in our economy and significant investment in our infrastructure, making Northern Ireland a better place to live, work and do business.”