Negotiations only way out of impasse, says ex-NI Secretary

Problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill should be resolved through negotiation, Julian Smith said yesterday.

he MP, who was sacked as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland a month after the Executive was last restored in January 2020, also called on MLAs to return to work and tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

Mr Smith, who was in Belfast for a Women in Business lunch, refused to be drawn on whether he was one of more than 140 MPs who cast a vote of no-confidence in Boris Johnson.

“I am looking at what was published on Monday,” Mr Smith said of the Bill, which will give ministers the power to override parts of the protocol and radically change the trading relationship between the EU and UK,

“It should be no surprise that my view is that the best way to resolve this is through negotiations between the EU and UK.”

While accepting that unionist concerns had to be addressed, he said he supported a “reformed” protocol that maintains Northern Ireland’s access to EU markets — a position supported by local business groups.

Changes are needed but there are real advantages to the protocol, Mr Smith said.

“I am making the case that negotiation is the way to go and is in the best interests of Northern Ireland,” he added.

“That is why we have to get the EU to understand the changes outlined by unionism.”

He argued that the UK and Irish governments should be making this case, and that all sides should be taking.

On whether the DUP would be satisfied if the protocol was not completely binned, Mr Smith said that while it was important that problems were addressed, the government had to understand the advantages offered by the deal. Pressed on the matter, he said: “All politicians want to do the right thing.”

Mr Smith argued MLAs should be back at Stormont dealing with key issues, including the cost-of-living crisis and out-of-control hospital waiting lists.

He told the Women in Business lunch that the network, and others of its type, were more important when the power-sharing institutions were “again going through political turbulence”.

“That’s why you are right to do more, and why we all need to speak out, push forward, hustle, promote and hammer home to everyone why this is such a special place with limitless opportunities,” Mr Smith said.

The Skipton and Ripon MP added he remained supportive of Northern Ireland, its people and everything achieved by the Good Friday Agreement.

“[The peace deal offers] fluid identities, fixed identities, the best of the UK and the best of the island of Ireland, broader business opportunities in the UK and across the island, and protection for all communities and the unaligned,” he told the audience.

“It is one of the most successful peace deals in the world and it is the best possible example that there is a case for shades of grey rather than black and white.”

Of being fired from the Cabinet, he added: “I had always felt it was important to do a decent length of time in a job. Getting the sack was something to be avoided.

“But there are advantages of being sacked so early in a job. It means you don’t have much time to annoy as many people.”