The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) remains a triumph of diplomacy over violence. It is the child of many people and forces, including both sides in the long conflict known as “The Troubles.” Between the late 1960s and 1998, 3,720 people died violently in Northern Ireland. 47,500 were injured. Nearly 40,000 shootings took place and over 16,000 bombings. Northern Ireland’s economy stagnated. Communities drew into themselves and the young saw little hope.
The signing of the GFA on 10 April 1998 marked the end of a 30 year civil war. The GFA brought, first, hope and then increasing prosperity, as investment returned and jobs were created. While the GFA was signed by the great and the good from the UK and Ireland and supported by the USA and the EU, it was the resounding referendum Yes from the people of Northern Ireland that saw it achieve democratic legitimacy and become a piece of paper of the greatest possible importance.
Peace – the greatest treasure of Northern Ireland
I’m of an age that I lived through the 40 years of The Troubles. When living in London, I narrowly missed one bomb and was close enough to another to hear its loud detonation. The nightly news was often a litany of more horror in Northern Ireland or of more death and destruction on the mainland. Like many Scots, I have family in Northern Ireland. One cousin, a GP, was caught in crossfire, crashed and never worked again. It was all too common a news story to read of a British army squaddie – often barely out of school – gunned down in Newry or Belfast and given full military honours in a bleak northern graveyard.
Peace came at last. It is the greatest treasure Northern Ireland can have.
So, I welcome that Rishi Sunak has been sufficiently trustworthy to persuade the EU that a deal could be done with the UK and, critically, that the British would keep their word. Sunak has partly absolved himself of the shared guilt of having voted for Boris Johnson’s “oven ready deal.” If ever there were a piece of electoral fraud, it was the Tory party telling the British public Brexit was done.
The new Northern Ireland Protocol that saw Sunak march into this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions bursting with smugness, is quite a remarkable document. Of all the nations of the UK, only Northern Ireland will have full and free access to the European single market. In Sunak’s own words, the free, full and open access to the UK market and to the EU market means Northern Ireland will be “the world’s most exciting economic zone.”
A break for – but not at the expense of the rest of the UK
Well, Northern Ireland deserves a break, but not at the expense of other parts of the UK that might suffer because of the deal. Mobile inward investment that might have gone to Scotland, Wales or the Liverpool region may be easily tempted to Northern Ireland. Goods made in the North can, free of bureaucracy, enter the EU by simply driving over the Irish border, then be rapidly transshipped by sea or air to the EU mainland. Financial services businesses located in the North will be able to “passport” into Europe, enjoying Europe-wide regulatory approvals. Businesses currently located in the UK may conclude that relocating to Northern Ireland is a far more efficient and profitable exercise than staying put.
For Scotland, the special status granted to Northern Ireland sticks in the craw. Scotland voted 62% Remain in 2016 (N Ireland voted 55.8% Remain). Every single local authority district in Scotland endorsed staying in the EU. Since then, support for EU membership has hardened. Scots wish Northern Ireland well, but question how the UK can be a union of equals if one part of the union has significant economic advantages not enjoyed by other parts. It is, of course, a Tory Brexit.
Once upon a time, the Labour party was the greatest defender of the interests of the ordinary man and woman in Scotland. Labour was the first to see danger lurking and the first to shout in defence of Scottish jobs and the Scottish economy. This week, not a word has been heard from Keir Starmer or his lone Scottish MP, Ian Murray, about the weakening of Scotland’s economic security, competitiveness and outlook.
Scotland must be heard
For over 100 years, Ulster Unionists have argued that Northern Ireland must enjoy all the same political and economic structures and benefits as the rest of the UK. They say anything less is unfair, unacceptable and unconstitutional. It might be time now to take the UK government to court to test the constitutional legitimacy of Northern Ireland being in the single market and Scotland not.
Ulster Unionists have never been my natural political bedfellows. However, I always understood their case and their right to put and fight for it. Now we need to put Scotland’s case and we need to make sure that Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer hear our voice. Otherwise, we will lose out for decades to come.