Brits ‘don’t understand’ how post-Brexit controls on goods between UK and Northern Ireland undermine identity of trade unionists, chairman of Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee says .
Simon Hoare, Conservative MP for North Devon, was responding to remarks by senior loyalist Billy Hutchinson that the Northern Ireland protocol was “a threat to the Britishness of the people”.
Mr Hutchinson, who heads the Progressive Unionist Party, told the committee that loyalty “feels threatened right now, feels threatened for a number of reasons”.
The biggest threat, he said, was for the North to remain in the European Union’s single market as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by London and Brussels to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We are the only region in the UK to [in the EU single market] and that means our whole economy will be aligned elsewhere and not with the UK, and that’s a threat to the Britishness of the people, ”Mr Hutchinson told MPs.
The former Ulster Volunteer Force chief said the arrangement violates the principle of consent, enshrined in the Belfast Accord, and “it forces people to take a path they don’t need to borrow”.
“It seems that this principle of consent has been flouted, or at least altered, in an attempt to scare unionism,” Hutchinson added.
Mr Hoare insisted that regulatory checks at Irish Sea ports only concern goods and not citizens.
“It’s not a border for people, it’s just regulatory control,” he said. “There are a lot of my friends and others who don’t understand how anyone can identify their sense of national belonging and identity by the customs arrangements which, for example, move their cornflakes from the Tesco warehouse in Daventry to the Tesco shelf in Belfast, and how people would identify who they belong to and who they identify with as a result of that.
Mr Hoare insisted that there was no constitutional impact of the protocol, which he said gave the North a “golden opportunity” to gain access to EU markets and from the United Kingdom.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, Conservative Party leader Michael Gove and Dublin had all assured that “the only way the constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland can be affected, modified or adjusted is through a border survey. “, he said.
“Isn’t that the assurance that the protocol is not about aggression or constitutional challenge, isn’t that enough?” he asked, during a hearing of the commission of inquiry into the arrangement.
But Mr Hutchinson said: “I’m not sure that’s enough.”
“I think we have to describe what happens when we are in the [EU] single market and what happens after Brexit is over, ”he said. “There will always be a border between us and the UK. “
Mr Hutchinson said it was up to the UK government to explain to loyalists that if the North remains in the EU’s single market after Brexit is over, “where does that leave people in Northern Ireland? in terms of Britishness “.
“People think ahead of time what kind of pressure is on them or what it leaves us, and no one has told us,” he said.
Mr Hutchinson described the protocol as a “trade deal with the EU” which is “a political problem” and “can only be solved by political solutions”.
History shows that if there is a political vacuum in the North, “it will be filled with violence,” he said, but added, “I don’t think we’ve reached that yet.
But he said ‘people are angry’ in loyalist communities because they ‘misunderstand how Brexit is going to play out and people haven’t realized that Brexit would have a bigger impact on Ireland North than the rest of the UK “.
“The reality is that it’s the UK’s job to make sure they work with the [Stormont] The executive needs to move forward and make sure it is easier for politicians to argue that there should be no violence, ”he said.
Mr Hutchinson said he did not accept the ‘pie in the sky’ argument that the North would attract international investment because of its unique access to EU and UK markets.
On allegations that an American company with offices in the North was worried about its employees during the recent loyalist riots, Mr Hutchinson said: “You have to be very careful when telling me about America. Irish America funded the deaths of British citizens across Europe, so we need to remember that as well. “
A trade union “convention” was needed to discuss the protocol while Dublin and Belfast were also to sit down and work out how to resolve the issues and present their findings to Brussels, he told the committee.
“Our strategy has to be crafted through a convention – I don’t care who calls it and who runs it, but I do care that we get along and do it,” he said.
“Unionism must be seen as it is in terms of size, and we are not seen that way. We are constantly behind the eight ball. We have to fend off the eight balls and say how wonderful we are. “