Northern Ireland

Published date : 01 February, 2024
My party and I have never made any secret of our disagreement with Brexit and the manner in which it was delivered. That has certainly caused issues for us in Scotland. However, we broadly welcome the point that matters have reached today. It has been a long road. Having clarity about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is, I believe, helpful, as indeed is the reaffirmation of the principle of consent, which is the basis on which many of us in Scotland, not just in Northern Ireland, understand the Union of which we are, willingly or otherwise, a part.

The manner in which Brexit has come about has, as I say, caused issues in Scotland. It has placed our own constitutional question back at the forefront and under renewed scrutiny, but despite the tensions that that has released, or brought about, politically, I hope that my party and I have been able to understand and empathise with some of the concerns of people in Northern Ireland, and not just over the way in which Brexit, as originally constituted, threatened to undermine the basis on which peace and progress had been secured over the previous quarter century.

I hope that my party and I have also been able to understand and reflect on the fact that aspects of the protocol have left Unionists in Northern Ireland in particular feeling that they have been in some way separated, or set on a course of being separated, from the UK. In that regard, as I have said on a number of occasions, we never considered it unreasonable in and of itself, in the light of experience, that the UK Government should seek to renegotiate, or to rework, aspects of the deal that had been put in place.

Although there were certainly opportunities to recast a deal which, I would argue, could have worked better in the interests of all parts of the UK—I would highlight sanitary and phytosanitary alignments as being essential to that—and while I regret that those options have not been pursued today, I do not begrudge Northern Ireland a single aspect of what has been agreed in recent days or what appears in the statutory instruments.


The border is certainly a complex one to try to police, and that has been at the forefront of many of the discussions. By contrast, we have what would be a very straightforward border between Scotland and England were it ever to take on international significance.

There appears to be something of a contradiction, in that Northern Ireland cannot conform to the requirements of the single market to maintain access there, and also the UK internal market, in the event of a future divergence. That brings to mind paragraph 146 of the Command Paper, which provides that

“the Government will legislate to require that a Minister in charge…must assess whether or not”


“has an impact on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”

and make statements.

That contrasts with new section 38A (1) of the SI, which states:

“His Majesty’s Government must not ratify a Northern Ireland-related agreement with the European Union that would create a new regulatory border”.

A Minister might lay a statement before Parliament to that effect, but that does not mean that the Minister’s opinion will necessarily be shared, or make the statement any less subjective. Ministers might be capable of thinking six impossible things before breakfast, and indeed at times during the Brexit debate it seemed that that was a necessary qualification for office. Nevertheless, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State, in summing up the debate, could clarify how any such dispute might ultimately be determined and resolved.

With these publications, we appear to have reached something of a conclusion. It has been a thoroughly exhausting process, which has occupied talents and energies—not just in the Government and Parliament here, but across swathes of public life in Northern Ireland and beyond—that could, I believe, have been directed more productively. Much work has built up in the absence of an Assembly, but hopefully these provisions will allow for all the political mechanisms to bring the Assembly back. It is important for that to happen because a peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland, at ease with itself, in control of its future and able to be respectful of all shades of opinion, is manifestly in the interests of all people in all these islands. To the extent that the statutory instruments pave a way towards restoring that state of affairs, we support them.

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