By Dominic McGrath, PA
This year’s Assembly election will not become a referendum on the Northern Ireland Protocol, an Alliance Party MP has predicted.
Deputy party leader Stephen Farry told an audience at the Dublin-based Institute of International and European Affairs that he does not foresee controversial post-Brexit arrangements becoming the defining issue in the upcoming ballot.
But Mr Farry, who stepped in at the last minute at the event to replace party leader Naomi Long, warned current divisions in Northern Ireland may prevent the forming of an Executive following the election in May.
The North Down MP, who offered an overview of his party’s post-Brexit policies, said: “The protocol will be part of the wider election for sure and some people are determined to make it a referendum on the protocol.”
Responding to a question from the PA news agency, Mr Farry referred to recent polling by the University of Liverpool which he said showed the health system in Northern Ireland is “by far the most significant” issue for voters.
He said the economy and education also outstrip the protocol in voters’ minds.
"The full potential of the GFA had not been fulfilled and then along came #Brexit. Brexit was the great disruptor that sought to provide black and white solutions to Northern Ireland, which has only managed to make progress through various shades of grey" - @StephenFarryMP pic.twitter.com/p4v8NjffeO
— IIEA (@iiea) January 7, 2022
“There is a danger that unionism is playing to its most extreme elements, in terms of the electorate, but that doesn’t reflect where the vast majority of people currently stand on the issue,” he told the webinar.
Talks between the UK government and EU over the post-Brexit arrangements for the region remain ongoing.
Unionists are opposed to post-Brexit checks for Northern Ireland, which effectively remains within the EU single market.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has repeatedly threatened to withdraw his party’s ministers from the Stormont Executive if the UK government does not act on the protocol.
Mr Farry described his party as “protocol pragmatists”, with a wish to turn the protocol “from a solid line down the Irish Sea to a dotted line”.
He said he is not yet optimistic that the appointment of British foreign secretary Liz Truss as the chief Brexit negotiator for the UK government, following the resignation of Lord Frost, will prompt any major changes in policy.
“The difficulty we have with Liz Truss is that she has aspirations to be the leader of the Conservative Party and one of lessons is that if you want to succeed Boris Johnson, who may well be wounded and may well step this year or be forced out, is that you have to play to the right-wing of the Conservative Party so that the political instinct is pulling in one direction,” he told the webinar.
“I do believe that deals can be done on all the issues. I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic just yet because of the internal political dynamics of the Conservative Party and the DUP, but we live in hope.”
Mr Farry, who was repeatedly critical of the DUP and its approach to Brexit, also expressed concern about whether political parties in Northern Ireland will be able to form a power-sharing Executive following an election.
He said: “This also comes in the context of who is the largest party after the next election, where a lot of people think it might well be Sinn Féin. And then the context is whether a unionist party, if they come second, if they’re prepared to share power with Sinn Féin in that context, and the wider tension on the protocol then provides another narrative to that debate.
“So there may well be a fear, a more realistic fear, that the difficulty is going to be how we reform the Executive after the election or whether we have a prolonged standoff.”
He said that if the current negotiations produce an improved settlement for Northern Ireland, he hopes an Assembly vote on the protocol – agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement – will by 2024 have become a “damp squib” as opposed to a “cliff-edge” vote.
As part of improvements and tweaks to trade between Northern Ireland, Britain and the EU, Mr Farry said his party also wants to see greater representation for Northern Irish politicians within the EU institutions
Promising fresh proposals on the issue in the coming weeks, he said it is important for the post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland to have democratic “legitimacy”.
Mr Farry ended his address with a warning that the coming weeks will be “critical” for Northern Ireland.
“The consequences of getting this wrong are severe, but the prize if we can get this right, in terms of landing the various aspects that are still causing contention, could be very significant for a flourishing Northern Ireland over the years ahead.”