In London, Brussels or Dublin, when it comes to Northern Ireland, political disagreements stifle the reality on the ground. Under these conditions, it is difficult to see what the real effects of the Protocol are, this provision of Brexit which installs health and customs controls in the Irish Sea rather than on land to prevent dissension from resurging in the region.
At the heart of the hubbub of threats and negotiations, however, one fact attracts attention. According to provisional figures from the province’s statistics office, Northern Ireland’s economic growth was the best in the UK in 2021. In the third quarter, it was just 0.3% lower than in the UK. before the health crisis – better than in England, Scotland or Wales, the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom. Admittedly, the very large public sector has mitigated the impact of the pandemic on employment, but we seem far from the disaster announced by London.
“After a year of existence of the Protocol, one thing is clear: it works! » boasted even the Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland last December. Leo Varadkar, head of government for most of the Brexit negotiations, is among those who have fought against the re-establishment of a land border on the island of Ireland. For three years, he insisted on the dangers posed by customs posts at the level of the old separation line, ensuring that they would immediately become targets. Supporter of a reunification, he considers that the current situation represents a success which boosts direct foreign investment in the region.
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“The Protocol was designed to ensure that there is no hard border between south and north, and there is none, he pointed out. It was designed to protect our place in the common market, and it did. It was designed to protect the economy across the island, and it’s thriving. “. Trade between the north and south of the island took off. Imports from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland increased by 64% between January and November 2021 compared to the previous year, and exports to the North of the island increased by 48% in the same time. At the same time, the UK’s share of Irish imports fell by 21%, mainly in the chemicals, food and drink sectors. Some Irish businesses are now looking to Europe for new suppliers and the number of direct shipping links between the port of Rosslare, Ireland, and the Channel ports has exploded.
Westminster may protest that the Northern Ireland Protocol is damaging the economic fabric of the province and harming its people, but the economic data indicates otherwise. A study by the Manufacturing NI group shows that Protocol ranks only fourth on the list of issues that are a problem for local businesses, far behind the lack of staff. In addition, companies that have chosen local are on the rise, such as the Henderson group which manages Spar, Vivo and Eurospar stores and opened nearly 30 new stores in Northern Ireland in 2021.
Its suppliers are located all over the island, which has allowed its stores “to take a considerable advantage over large stores which are suffering from the delays and shortages linked to the Protocol on Northern Ireland”, assures its marketing director, Paddy Doody. On the other hand, the 100% British brand Marks & Spencer is one of the major voices speaking out against the border in the Irish Sea: the group had to withdraw 800 product lines from its shelves in Ireland because of the checks and administrative hassles.
A flourishing trade between north and south, a reduction in trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom, and a Northern Ireland which is regaining the hair of the beast: all these observations are timely as the negotiations between Brussels and London are continuing. But to admit that the situation is not so bad would be an impossible about-face for Boris Johnson. To admit that Northern Ireland is doing better than the rest of the UK because it is still part of the European common market would call into question the very essence of Brexit.
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Despite these economic successes, the time for the political reunification of the island has not yet come. Before proposing a referendum, it will be necessary to think about the form that this new state would take, its capital, its currency, its flag, its public services, its health system, the protection of its various communities and above all… its membership or not. to the European Union.