Following a recent flurry of high-profile visitors, one might be forgiven for expecting an imminent breakthrough in the Protocol dispute.
A rapid succession of turns before the travelling press pack saw the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss declare that the issues were fixable, and the US congressman Richie Neal conclude that problems with the post-Brexit trade arrangements could be ironed out quickly. Such public declarations were added to by the Taoiseach Michéal Martin who used one of his media appearances to issue a direct message to the UK and EU; ‘get into the tunnel and negotiate.’
Certainly, a tone of urgency was in the air, but could this also signal a gear change after endless stagnation?
Based on the many conversations we held with political leaders during our engagements at Balmoral Show, there was clearly much common ground amongst the major parties. A fundamental acknowledgement that the Protocol is not working as it needs to work and that a ‘landing zone’ exists from which solutions could be progressed. Yet it would appear that the public bickering and rhetoric is obscuring their ability to see the common ground on which they stand. Instead, sharing ownership of potential solutions, rather than finding fault with them because of their origins, is a mark of real leadership; one that is sorely needed in resolving the current impasse. Through clear goal-setting and collective accountability the chances of successfully reaching an agreement could be within our grasp, but we need our political parties to seize the opportunity to achieve the best possible outcome by working in partnership with business.
This could provide the solid foundation upon which the negotiating teams in London and Brussels could then see their proposed improvements to the Protocol progress and become harmonised. Maintaining forward motion will be key to ensuring that the Protocol is fit for purpose so that the significant minority of businesses which are negatively impacted are no longer disadvantaged. The nuanced experiences of small and micro businesses have been largely overshadowed by the binary nature of the Protocol impasse. Just as the Belfast Photo Festival, which has returned to the city, aims to capture the often-underrepresented perspectives on the world so, too, by shifting focus away from entrenched positions, the prospect of securing solid progress in negotiations could be greatly enhanced. Aptly titled, The Verge, the event showcases photography’s ability to move us beyond what is already known. The artists involved are shining a light on hidden subject matter in a bid to reframe past events.
With so much at stake amid the continuing paralysis of politics at Stormont, it is essential that political leaders in London and Brussels get laser-focused on reaching agreement on solutions to the problems. The concept of trust is central to giving the EU the level of reassurance it needs to maintain the integrity of the Single Market. So, too, new arrangements should recognise both the unique nature of business in Northern Ireland and the very particular economic territorial situation here.
Having navigated a whirlpool of dramatic moments and sticking plaster fixes for far too long now the sense of exasperation within the business community is palpable, and justifiably so.
There is a lot to sift and sort and a sense that momentum is building to edge us closer to a new reality. Changes indeed could be coming as early as next week if the UK government follows through with its threatened move to introduce legislation that will allow Number 10 unilaterally to abandon the Protocol. We very much hope that Liz Truss follows the road of her publicly stated preference to fix the issues through negotiation. The most robust solutions will be those that are reached through dialogue and agreement. The longer the status of the Protocol remains perilous, the longer businesses will suffer.
Roger Pollen is Head of FSB NI.