Published:

Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary and Energy Minister, and is MP for South Northamptonshire.

Vladimir Putin’s violent and illegal attack on Ukraine has brought out the best in Europe. From defensive military support to humanitarian aid and the generosity of European citizens, Putin has done more to strengthen NATO’s unity and Europe’s friendship than at any time since the Second World War.

And yet, despite this united response to oppression, in the background there remains an ongoing challenge to our United Kingdom that must be addressed. Unresolved, the Northern Ireland Protocol is an existential threat, a problem that even risks the break-up of the UK.

Set up to facilitate trade, the Northern Ireland Protocol is not serving businesses. While the intention was agreement on a small and limited number of goods that might be subject to checks between the UK and Northern Ireland, goods would otherwise be able to go free of customs checks and tariffs into the EU.

However the reality is that regulatory checks required on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from the UK already equate to 20 per cent of the total undertaken by the entire EU – yet amount to less than one per cent of its trade. Little wonder nine out of ten Northern Ireland traders report supply chain disruption, and six out of ten have changed their supply routes. Uncertainty over grace periods continue to add additional stress to the situation.

Where the Protocol was intended to protect the peace process, the reality is that power sharing arrangements in Stormont have collapsed under accusations of inequitable treatment. The delicate principle of cross community consensus has been superseded by the principle of international treaty.

And as far as the constitution is concerned, the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland is clear: the Protocol, as the intentional decision of a sovereign government, has ‘subjugated’ Article VI of the Act of Union. To add to this, regulatory divergence is accelerating, leading the Northern Ireland economy ever further from the UK.

The failure of the Protocol to protect movement of goods and even the Union itself could see a disillusioned unionist outcome in the May local elections, with a risk of a republican First Minister elected, and hence pressure for a divisive border referendum. We simply cannot wait any longer to address the very real concerns of so many UK citizens and residents in Northern Ireland.

A radical way by which we can address the shortcomings of the Protocol, and give a major boost to the Northern Ireland economy once and for all would be to establish a freeport across the whole of Northern Ireland.

Other parts of the UK will enjoy freeports – free from import and customs duties and delivering a boost to exports. Northern Ireland would benefit hugely from new jobs, opportunities and growth – imagine the benefit in this vital part of the UK of a comprehensive package of freeport measures such as tax relief, business rates retention, regeneration, innovation, trade and investment.

Freeport status would attract private investors, stimulate jobs and growth, as well as potentially simplify customs checks and tariffs. In short, a freeport would position Northern Ireland as a hub for global trade and investment, providing the environment for innovation in research and development and promoting regeneration. In today’s global and competitive world, these would be clear advantages for both Northern Ireland, and the Union.

This idea has already been shared with Ministers, but under the terms of the Protocol what’s clear is that a freeport cannot be established in Northern Ireland without agreement of the EU. And our inability to make progress even on border checks through negotiation does not bode well for reaching such an agreement.

So with little progress being made on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Government should now be considering more radical steps to support and protect all parts of our Union and negotiating hard with the EU to protect our own sovereignty. Like a majority of UK citizens, I am a proud unionist – keeping all parts of our Kingdom united is a top priority and one that needs continuous focus and a creative approach. The EU must surely also recognise this.

The Government cannot wait any longer for others to make decisions on the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol.  Its impact on daily life in Northern Ireland and on the future of our Union must be tackled urgently and a freeport could just be the win-win that we are all looking for.