The First Minister of Northern Ireland has taken the deeply unusual step of launching a public petition to Parliament to scrap restrictions imposed on trade between the province and the British mainland by Boris Johnson’s deals with the European Union.
The British government’s official petitions system, usually meant for members of the general public to bring up issues with the state, is set out so any petition that reaches 10,000 signatures will get a government response. If a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, the issue will even be considered for a debate in Parliament. In an unusual step, the leader of one of the United Kingdom’s home nations — Arlene Foster of Northern Ireland, which has its own regional parliament at Stormont — is now using this system to petition the central government directly.
Although Northern Ireland is the least populous of the British home nations, the petition has already surged, gaining more than 90,000 signatures in a day and heading briskly towards the 100,000 target, a potential indication of the strength of feeling on the subject.
Foster, who leads the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, or Ulster, and is the First Minister of Northern Ireland, backed Brexit in 2016, but opposed the terms of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deals with Brussels. This saw the British province abandoned to continued EU regulation and EU court authority, and divided from the British mainland by a partial trade border overseen by EU officials — even the British military are required to give advance notice and fill in forms before they can move equipment to Northern Ireland from Great Britain now.
The European Union claimed during the Brexit negotiations that this arrangement, which has been likened to a form of economic annexation by critics, was the only way to maintain the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member-state, and preserve the peace between the pro-British majority in the province (unionists, or loyalists) and the terrorist factions within the minority of the population which support leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Irish republic (nationalists, or republicans).
Those arguments, which Brexiteers long argued were a sham, with Ireland merely being used as leverage to squeeze concessions out of the British negotiating team, were badly undermined in recent days when the European Commission announced it would be unilaterally imposing a hard border for vaccines between the two Irelands, without consulting the British central government, Northern Ireland’s devolved government, or even the Irish government in Dublin.
While that scheme was abandoned following backlash from London, Belfast, Dublin, and many EU capitals, Ulster’s unionist leadership appear to be using the ill-will the fiasco has generated to push for the Johnson administration to activate Article 16 of the EU protocol on the province and opt out of the current restrictions on trade between the two halves of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@DUPleader) February 4, 2021
“After just one month, Northern Ireland is suffering real economic and societal difficulties as a consequence of the Northern Ireland Protocol operating and creating new barriers to unfettered trade within the United Kingdom and disrupting supply lines of goods to Northern Ireland,” complains First Minister Foster’s official petition to Parliament, which amassed tens of thousands of signatures within hours of its publication.
“The Government should use all the powers it has to move urgently to protect UK trade and to ensure all UK goods and produce can freely flow to and from every part of the United Kingdom,” it adds.
“It was naive of Her Majesty’s Government to believe that they could renege on the promises they made to the unionist population, to achieve a quick fix agreement with the European Union, without consequence,” explained Sammy Wilson, an MP for Foster’s party, in comments to Breitbart London which referenced previous commitments by Boris Johnson — who went to great lengths to curry favour with the DUP before he became Tory leader — that he would never allow a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland down the Irish Sea.
“The incredibly callous decision of the EU last weekend to trigger Article 16 to block the import of vaccines, before being forced into a humiliating climbdown, exposed the great con-trick of the Brexit negotiations. In one move, the argument that a border between Northern Irleand and the Republic would be unworkable and unmanageable faded away,” the Ulsterman continued.
“The EU had no qualms in tossing aside the protocol when it wished to deflect from its bureaucratic and political incompetence regarding Covid vaccines. The Government should show the same attitude in defending the integrity of the UK,” he said.
Brexit leader Nigel Farage, who now heads the Reform UK party, has also thrown his weight behind the DUP petition.
It seems that Northern Ireland is being increasingly cut off from the rest of the UK in terms of trade.
I am signing this petition to put pressure on the government to do something and urge Brexiteers and those that believe in the UK to do the same.https://t.co/Eg7Jori28I
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) February 4, 2021