By Michelle O’Neill
As first minister-designate, I made a commitment to work with political leaders to ensure that politics works for ordinary workers and families across all communities. Today I am travelling to Brussels to bring that message to Europe. I will be outlining the need for positive, constructive solutions to outstanding issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, and sending the clear message that people in the North, our society and our businesses will not be held to ransom by game-playing or political brinkmanship from Brexiteers.
Along with party president Mary Lou McDonald, I will be meeting European leaders including European Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič to express the firm support that there is for the protocol. We will thank them for their support for the Belfast Agreement and the important solidarity they have shown in prioritising peace and stability in the North in the face of the UK government’s cynical and reckless behaviour in recent times.
Last week we were in London engaging with industry, trade union leaders, MPs and lords from across all Westminster parties and the media. We were there to reflect the present realities and dispel the misinformation that there is universal opposition to the protocol — in fact a majority of Assembly members returned only three weeks ago support the protocol.
It is worth reiterating that the people of the North voted against Brexit and never consented to being forced out of the EU.
Brexit is fundamentally incompatible with the Belfast Agreement and has caused huge uncertainty for businesses here. There is not and never will be any “good” Brexit for Ireland. However, the protocol, while imperfect, limits the worst impacts of Brexit and protects the Belfast Agreement, All-Ireland economy, and prevents a hard border on our island.
Indeed, it offers many benefits to businesses in the North by giving them continued access to the EU and British markets. I welcome the news that Ballymena firm Wrightbus has secured a deal to supply 60 hydrogen buses to Germany over the next two years. This illustrates the benefits that our continued access to the EU single market is yielding for local business, our economy and jobs.
Many businesses in the North have seen trade boom due to the protocol and the unique competitive advantage it gives them on these islands. Business leaders, including the CBI, have been clear that they support the protocol and want it to work.
Most people in the North support the protocol and, in May’s Assembly election, a strong majority voted for parties that support it. The electorate sent the message loud and clear that they want to see politicians working together at Stormont to deliver for people. This means getting back to the Executive to deliver support for people hit by the cost-of-living crisis, to invest in our health service and to work together to make politics work for everyone.
By contrast, some in the DUP and Conservative Party are trying to misrepresent the protocol and hold the North to ransom over it. These are the same Brexiteers who championed the hardest of Brexits and at every turn rejected every solution suggested to them, yet they know no credible alternatives exist.
The threats by Boris Johnson to take unilateral action by legislating to breach an international agreement and undermine international rule of law is reckless and wholly unacceptable.
Only through joint solutions with the EU and within the framework of the protocol can issues be resolved.
As first minister-designate, I am absolutely clear that the North must not — and will not — become collateral damage in a game of chicken designed to appease Tory backbenchers and the DUP.
The Belfast Agreement must be applied in all its parts — an Assembly, Executive, North-South Ministerial Council and East-West structures and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference — and without further interruption. Our collective task is to work together to solve the problems facing our society.
We must apply the full powers and resources of the Executive and Assembly to address the big issues of the day that voters elected us to deliver on.
It is time for us all as leaders to have the courage to step forward, with unity of purpose and determination, to deliver a stable powersharing coalition that works and delivers. There can be no excuses and no attempt by the DUP or anyone else to punish the public and leave workers and families high and dry for a moment longer. Their stand-off is in reality with the public we serve, not the EU.
I will bring that message to Brussels today. The solutions are there, but at this time the political will from Boris Johnson is not. His Government are regrettably pursuing an anti-Belfast Agreement agenda, which is disingenuously wrapped up in pro-agreement rhetoric.
Progress can only come from working together in good faith, not marauding or posturing. My focus will be on engaging with everyone to deliver these solutions. People across Ireland need to see delivery and leadership.