Dual Market Access

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 10:45 am ar 18 Mehefin 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 10:45, 18 Mehefin 2024

I beg to move

That this Assembly affirms the huge opportunity afforded to our local economy as a result of the dual market access available to businesses here, allowing the seamless movement of goods into both the EU and UK markets; recognises that this opportunity has the potential to deliver tangible benefits in terms of job creation, inward investment, improved wages and productivity and improved regional balance; acknowledges the importance of continued efforts to ease the flow of goods moving from east to west and also the need to mitigate damage to North/South services and trade not covered by the protocol/Windsor framework; notes that deriving full benefits from our advantageous trading position will require focused intergovernmental and inter-agency work; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to work with the Irish Government to establish a joint Invest NI/IDA Ireland working group, drawing on expertise from InterTradeIreland, interested business groups and, where relevant, the UK Department for Business and Trade and the EU Directorate-General, to develop a clearly defined strategy to maximise the huge economic advantages afforded to Northern Ireland, with the aim of providing reports to the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which will in turn furnish recommendations under article 14 of the protocol to the Specialised Committee on the protocol/Windsor framework; and further calls on the Minister to provide an update to the Assembly on the establishment of this working group and its actions not later than the end of 2024.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is more like an essay than a motion. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, I apologise to the Clerk for making her read out such an expansive motion. The motion is long and detailed for a specific reason: we want to nail down specifics in it. In each Opposition day so far, the SDLP Opposition have sought to use their time to effectively hold Ministers to account and to platform the most urgent policy matters. The two go hand in hand: accountability and a vision for the future; that is what being a constructive Opposition is about.

In this final Opposition day before the summer recess — I am sure that some Executive colleagues will be delighted to hear me say that — the SDLP Opposition will propose three motions aimed at maximising the benefits of all-Ireland cooperation in investment and job creation, improving healthcare and building our vital tourism industry. In each of those areas, the relevant Minister has signalled a positive tone in relation to greater cross-border collaboration, but we want and need to see practical action and specific plans with timelines.

Our first, admittedly very detailed, motion calls for specific actions — meat on the bones — and a rhetorical commitment to dual market access. The SDLP has been the loudest and longest champion of the unique dual market access afforded to this region under the protocol, now termed the Windsor framework. Indeed, I was the first person to use that phrase in the Assembly Chamber — yes, I am sad enough that I went and checked that in Hansard. Back then, in 2020 and 2021, the very existence of our preferential trading arrangements at the crossroads of the world's two largest markets was hugely controversial. Yes, it remains controversial today, as does Brexit itself, which was an extraordinary act of economic self-harm. The UK's official economic forecast to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates that Brexit, specifically hard Brexit, will cost the UK around 4% of its productivity and 15% lower trade. Those might seem like dry, abstract percentages, but they will add up to tens and, ultimately, hundreds of billions of pounds of lost economic activity, which means tens of billions of pounds or more of missed tax revenue. When we add that to the existing effects of grinding austerity, it helps to explain the withered state of public services here and elsewhere.

I do not want to spend the debate lingering on the old Brexit battle, not that there really is anything to debate. Even Nigel Farage, a close personal friend — or fair-weather friend — to some in the Chamber, has admitted that Brexit is a failure. We cannot escape all the negative consequences of that failure. As I said, we are living with its consequences, with lower spending by the UK Government and the deterioration of public services. We are dealing with key labour shortages, with the movement of people being outside the protocol. We are dealing with disruptions in trading services, cross-border and into Europe.

The data is clear: we are seeing tangible economic benefits from our ability, which is unique on this planet, to move goods seamlessly into both the British and European single markets. InterTradeIreland collates data published by the Central Statistics Office in Dublin and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) in Belfast. The data is stark. Before Brexit and our new trading arrangements in 2015, annual cross-border trade in goods stood at just under €3 billion, having been around that level for more than a decade. By 2023, cross-border trade had tripled in value to more than €10 billion. I quote a report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) last September:

"The unique status of Northern Ireland with its access to both the EU and UK markets has driven this recent substantial increase in cross-border trade and has the potential to continue to feed into broader economic linkages across the island."

Let me be clear: that is a good thing, whatever your constitutional perspective.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Member is the leader of the Opposition for a party called the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Is that which he is embracing — the concept of 300 areas of law that should rest in this House being surrendered to a foreign Parliament over which we have no control — not the very antithesis of democracy? I never really thought of the Member as a colonialist, but it turns out that that is exactly what he is: a willing slave to colonial rule by the EU.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am delighted that I gave way to the Member, because he has given me the opportunity to say that I am a proud pro-European and that I would love to remove any scintilla of a lack of democracy from our arrangements by rejoining the European Union via an inclusive and reconciled new Ireland. What a great idea.

To be clear, increased cross-border trade is a good thing. It may be the only good thing to have come from Brexit, even if was the last thing that some of Brexit's strongest proponents wanted. We have some canopy from the Brexit storm. Northern Ireland, traditionally one of the weakest-performing economic regions, has consistently outperformed other UK regions since we formally exited the EU. Ignoring the role played by our uniquely advantageous trading position would be daft and disingenuous. Much of that growth happened when there was no Executive at all to drive policy or strategy or when severe political instability and doubts over Ministers' commitment to pursuing the benefits of dual market access hindered investment.

I can remember a time in the Chamber when Ministers for the Economy denied that there even were benefits, even as Invest NI sought to tentatively market those benefits overseas. I am glad that the Economy Minister that we now have does not share that position. Imagine what could be achieved with a focused plan and strategy in collaboration with the Irish Government and, indeed, with the support of the UK Government and the European Commission.

Briefly, to anyone who thinks that we are ignoring the east-west axis: our motion is deliberately drafted so as to underline the importance of the east-west axis. By definition, supporting the dual market access benefits of the protocol is an acknowledgement of the fact that the east-west economic access is vital for Northern Ireland. Of course, our motion says that we want collaboration with the UK Department for Business and Trade to help to realise the benefits. I genuinely commend the Economy Minister for showing a commitment to growing the all-island economy as part of his economic vision and to getting additional funding for InterTradeIreland, which was deliberately left to wilt as a bit of a Cinderella among economic development agencies by some of his predecessors.

We will, however, need much more than simply some extra funding and aspirations for InterTradeIreland. It needs a detailed work programme with agreed targets and, yes, bureaucratic structures for delivery and accountability. We in the SDLP believe that that should logically start with an agreed working group comprising IDA Ireland, which is known as one of the world's most successful investment agencies, and Invest NI reporting jointly to Ministers, North and South. For too long, on both sides of the border, those agencies were encouraged to view each other, narrowly and unhelpfully, as competitors rather than partners.

The protocol offers a specific benefit to goods moving from Northern Ireland, but its benefits can be felt all over the island of Ireland. To give an example, if a US or Continental pharmaceutical company were wishing to avail itself of the protocol benefits of a location in the North, that would need not deter investment in the South. Indeed, it might enhance the investment potential — such potential that I am choking on my words with excitement — of existing Southern sites, given the potential for cross-border value chains.

The recent review of Invest NI and the appointment of an IDA Ireland veteran as its chief executive officer offer the chance to open a new chapter. As I said, our motion also acknowledges the importance of the east-west axis in making such opportunities work, whether by resolving outstanding issues with moving goods east to west or by ensuring that, unlike under the Tories, a new British Government are willing to task their Department for Business and Trade with properly helping signpost and sell our dual market access.

In early 2021, the SDLP wrote to that UK Department's predecessor, alongside the Irish Government and the EU Directorate-General for Trade. At the time, we did not have a local Minister who wanted to take that opportunity. If the rhetoric is to be believed, we do now, but we need to see a plan, on paper and with clear actions and timelines, ideally in a Programme for Government with a budget to match.

The protocol's economic opportunities are no panacea, but they are, finally, a unique opportunity to turn the dual nature of this complicated place into meaningful economic potential for our people. Let us not waste that chance. I commend the Opposition motion to the Assembly.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Today, we discuss the significant opportunities for and the challenges facing the North of Ireland in the post-Brexit era. As representatives who are committed to the prosperity and well-being of all our people, it is essential that we recognise and seize the potential that lies ahead.

Since Brexit, the North has found itself in a unique position. Our continued access to UK and EU markets offers unparalleled trade benefits. We have seen recent statistics that showcase the fact that, between the North and the Republic, there has been a marked increase in trade, with exports rising by over 40% in the past year alone. Dual access has therefore allowed our businesses to thrive in a way that is unmatched by other regions, ensuring that the North is an attractive hub for trade and investment. Our priority must be to put the economy and jobs first.

Given our strategic position, and with the right policies, the North has the potential to become a dynamic, forward-thinking economy that is driven by innovation and trade. We can create an environment that attracts global business, fosters local entrepreneurship and ensures high-quality, good jobs for our people. We must advocate policies that support that vision and work tirelessly to create a thriving economic landscape. The economy of the North must be allowed to move forward on a stable and secure footing in order to take advantage of dual market access.

The economic and global potential arising from our dual market access has been significantly showcased around the world. Just last week, at the Committee for the Executive Office, we heard from offices across the world about the opportunities that that has created and the interest in the North that has arisen and been augmented. Dual market access has to be recognised and promoted, as it affords the North the potential to bring good jobs and prosperity to businesses, farmers and families across the North.

One of the most exciting prospects is enhanced cooperation across Ireland. There are numerous examples of businesses operating seamlessly between North and South, exemplifying the spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit. Companies such as Vertiv in Derry are shining examples of that success. Vertiv has leveraged its unique position to streamline operations, enhance supply-chain efficiency and access a broader market base, all while creating jobs and fostering economic growth in the north-west.

Do not just take it from me. Listen to John McGrane, head of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, and to Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI, who stated:

“The benefits of dual market access cannot be overstated. It allows businesses to compete on a global stage, bringing prosperity and job creation. We must continue to support and promote this unique position to maximize its potential.”

In conclusion, the North has a unique opportunity to redefine its economic future. By embracing all-Ireland cooperation while simultaneously augmenting east-west relations, prioritising economic growth and leveraging our unique dual market access, we can create a prosperous and inclusive economy for all. We know that those relations are more important than ever, as are our offices in Brussels — they presented to us, as I said, this week — and the North/South bodies that we are able to access this information through, and we should seize the opportunities that we now have. Let us work together, North/South and east-west, to build a brighter future for the North and be recognised as a beacon of innovation, trade and opportunity.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

The DUP has been clear that the arrangements to which Northern Ireland is currently subject impact on and undermine the integrity of the UK's internal market. However, the DUP was able to make gains. Building on the progress to date, the DUP will continue to fight to fully restore Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom, including removing the application of EU law in our country and the internal Irish Sea border that it creates.

The continued barriers to trade with GB demonstrate that dual market access to both the UK and EU markets, in the broadest sense depicted by those who tabled the motion, does not exist in the sense outlined. We must not pretend otherwise. Purchases made by Northern Irish businesses from GB were worth more than twice as much as those from the whole EU, including the Irish Republic, in 2022. Moreover, GB remains the largest and most valuable market for Northern Ireland's economy, including external sales. Those trends must be reflected through trade, customs and regulatory arrangements that provide unfettered access for firms and consumers. The SDLP, Sinn Féin and Alliance fail to realise that the internal barriers to trade between GB and NI have a direct and tangible impact on our competitiveness when firms market their goods outside Northern Ireland, including in the EU. The higher transport and logistical costs from GB for raw materials will lead to higher production costs and, in turn, higher product prices, which collectively makes breaking into new markets more challenging.

Today's motion also talks about the potential benefits of so-called dual market access for attracting inward investment to Northern Ireland. It fails to consider that, if a global manufacturer is considering investing in Northern Ireland's highly skilled workforce, barriers to sourcing key materials from one of the world's largest economies — GB — will have a chilling effect on whether a business chooses to invest. A competitive advantage at the point of sale is of little benefit if there is a competitive disadvantage elsewhere in the supply chain. We accept the reference to easing the flow of trade between GB and NI in the motion, but it is at best superficial. There is no reference to a role for Intertrade UK, which will be key to promoting trade between our four nations. Creating working groups that focus solely on North/South trade, rather than investment opportunities that encompass the whole UK, limits what can be achieved for our businesses and communities.

The motion envisages a role for the North/South Ministerial Council that frankly does not exist. Article 14(b) of the protocol states that the Specialised Committee will:

"examine proposals concerning the implementation and application of this Protocol from the North-South Ministerial Council and North-South Implementation bodies set up under the 1998 Agreement".

It is unclear how the development of a new economic strategy for Northern Ireland, as recommended by the motion, falls into the remit of "implementation". Furthermore, why should the Republic's foreign direct investment association have any role in the development of Northern Ireland's trade and investment strategies? Promoting Northern Ireland's role in a truly global economy should be a matter for the Executive, Invest NI and the Department for Business and Trade. We are firmly of the view that it does not require large swathes of EU law to apply in Northern Ireland to secure advantageous and mutually beneficial trading arrangements. Mutual recognition would see the 5% of businesses in Northern Ireland that trade with the EU monitored by UK authorities to ensure that they have complied with EU standards and regulations and paid any tariffs due. The EU would take the same responsibility for Irish businesses exporting into Northern Ireland.

That approach was recklessly dismissed by the EU and Dublin.

We will continue to make the case that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement review next year presents an opportunity to demonstrate that Northern Ireland should not be bound by EU law, which is not needed when mutual enforcement and recognition would and could work between the UK and EU. That will ensure that any approach to affording businesses and consumers access to both the UK and EU markets respects the territorial integrity of the UK, the value of existing trade flows and the constitutional —

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

— position of Northern Ireland. Therefore, we will vote against the motion.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

The UK's decision to leave the European Union in 2016 was an enormous act of economic self-harm. Its destabilising impacts have been most acutely felt here in Northern Ireland, with borders and barriers being placed back at the centre of our politics. It has left in its wake a litany of unkept promises and unfulfilled commitments. That is no surprise to those of us on these Benches, but what never fails to surprise me is the ability of DUP members to contort themselves and U-turn on the issue and their seemingly endless willingness to trust a Conservative Party that has thrown them under the bus at every cut and turn over the past eight years. Nor is it lost on the public that the DUP held the balance of power at Westminster during a critical juncture in the Brexit negotiations and then misrepresented Northern Ireland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, voted down every possible alternative to the protocol, overplayed its hand, squandered its influence and walked us to the position in which we now find ourselves. Nor is the irony lost on anyone that those who most avidly pursued the hardest possible Brexit now shed crocodile tears at the inevitable consequences of their actions.

Since 2016, we have been engaged in an exercise of damage limitation. Alliance has consistently said that there was no such thing as a good or sensible Brexit, and, despite our opposition to both Brexit and the protocol, which we voted against at Europe and at Westminster, we have continued to focus on pragmatic solutions to make leaving the EU as painless and low-impact as possible for business and the people whom we represent. However, we can deliver on those solutions only if people are willing to acknowledge that Brexit is the original sin that has caused increased friction and costs, rather than entertaining the fantasy that we can leave the EU and retain all its benefits.

Whatever the deal, the fact remains that Northern Ireland requires special arrangements, and that is why Alliance's tests have remained: protecting the Good Friday Agreement, upholding our dual market access and ensuring that any agreement is legal and sustainable. There is no doubt that our dual market access creates huge economic opportunities for agriculture, manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies. Indeed, to see that, you have only to look to my constituency of Upper Bann, where Almac, a highly regulated pharmaceutical manufacturer, is reaping the huge benefits of access to both markets. However, in order to fully maximise that benefit, we owe those businesses political certainty and stability and a commitment to upholding that dual market access and to working across these islands, including with the Irish Government, to market and promote the opportunities on the international stage.

I welcome the practical proposals that are set out in the motion. My colleague David Honeyford will speak in more detail about our proposals for how we can better leverage that dual market access.

Dual market access, however, must not be the ceiling on our ambition. It is true that dual market access applies only to goods and not to services and that some friction exists in a number of areas. We need a focus from the next UK Government on resolving outstanding issues, such as those relating to dental amalgam and veterinary medicines, through comprehensive and bespoke agreements. Alliance would go further still. Our ambition is not only to return to the single market and the customs union but to be back in the European Union where we belong, cooperating and collaborating with our European neighbours on the big economic and environmental challenges —

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

— restoring opportunities for our young people and reversing the huge economic damage that has been caused.

I will give way to the Member, and I can predict what he is going to ask me.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have a genuine curiosity. I thank the Member for giving way. Sadly, from my point of view — in a previous life, I tried hard to keep the UK in the EU — it appears vanishingly unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU. Are there any other routes that he can think of and that he would like to endorse here today for how Northern Ireland can rejoin the EU? I cannot think of any.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

There are two routes back into the European Union.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

I do not share the Member's analysis that the UK returning to the EU is unlikely. If you look at opinion polling and the UK public's opinion on the impact of Brexit, given the fact that the decision to leave the EU came about as a result of a referendum that was tainted by lies and dark money and given that people are feeling the impact of Brexit on their pocket, you will see that a huge number of people in the UK are reconsidering the decision that was taken. I will continue to argue and try to persuade counterparts in Westminster that we should return to the EU. I would not be surprised if that were to happen sooner than the Member thinks.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Ulster Unionist Party will support the motion. The issue is dual market access, but we have to consider it in the wider context. We are at a juxtaposition at the moment: we are potentially looking at a new United Kingdom Government who, if Labour, are already seeking a new approach to Europe. Many of us who have spent a lot of time in Brussels and a lot of time talking to our European friends in Brussels, Dublin and other capital cities across Europe will know that there is very much a wish to have the United Kingdom much more closely associated with Europe. The reason for that is clear: we have a war in Europe right now, and the indications are that it will get significantly worse. It is vital that the United Kingdom is part of the response to all the challenges that face everybody across Europe at the moment, whether that is through providing security or because of our strengths in research and development, industrial capacity and manufacturing, of which Northern Ireland is very much a key part.

There are many advantages to Northern Ireland's dual market access. I note the need to work more closely across this island, these islands and Europe to make that happen. I thank the Member for raising the issue of Intertrade UK and the importance of east-west links. That is also vital. If Northern Ireland is going to properly fulfil its role, it will need the linkages with the rest of our nation to be just as strong as those with the European Union. They will need to be made to work.

I am a member of the Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee. We in the Chamber need to make sure that any rules and regulations that come from the European Union are fit for purpose. We, as a Committee, have to take our responsibilities seriously and scrutinise those rules and regulations. If some of them will undermine significantly that dual market access by distorting the market, it is our duty to do something about it. Regrettably, as I have said in a Member's statement, the Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee is not being particularly democratic; it is definitely not doing a lot of scrutiny; and I assure you that it is not acting well as a Committee. That needs to change. If we are to support Northern Ireland businesses to get the most out of that dual market access, we have to remove whatever tinted glasses we have, look at the issues critically and put the interests of Northern Ireland first. There are many issues that need to be dealt with effectively.

As we, hopefully, move into a new period post 5 July, the United Kingdom will move closer towards the European Union, particularly in the areas of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) regulations, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, research and development, and some services. Northern Ireland needs to remain agile and effective enough to make proper use of that dual market access.

I am glad that the Minister is here. One of the questions that we have to ask is whether Invest NI is fit for purpose. I think that anybody who talks to industry and businesses across Northern Ireland will know that there is a universal theme: Invest NI is not fit for purpose. We need to invest properly in Invest NI so that it is capable of undertaking its role most effectively. If that means improving relationships and getting much better at working with the Department for Business and Trade and other groups, as well as the likes of IDA Ireland, it is important that we do that. However, we should also be cautious, because, having worked many times with the IDA, I assure you that its interests are not for Northern Ireland; they are for the Irish Republic. We need to have in Invest NI an organisation that is match fit enough to deal with that across the board.

Photo of David Honeyford David Honeyford Alliance

I recently wrote an Alliance Party opinion piece that was published in the 'The Irish News' that laid out Alliance's position on working to rebalance the economy across this island and within these islands. It referenced collaboration between Invest NI and the IDA, so I thank the SDLP for bringing forward a lot of what I have previously said.

Sinéad McLaughlin and I, as with the DUP and Sinn Féin members of the Economy Committee, are often very much on the same page, and I look forward to continuing those close working relationships as we look to grow and better our economy. It is so positive when we speak collectively on the issues, but it is absolutely disappointing — there must be an election on the go or something — that we have the DUP's position today. However, the public see through that and will expect us to get back to normal after recess and to having a working collaboration between everybody in order to better this place.

I said in the Platform piece that I wrote that, "It's the economy, stupid", which was the famous catchphrase from the 1992 presidential election. The question was this:

“'Change? or More of the same?'”

As our economic performance remains stubbornly well behind that of the rest of the UK and absolutely miles behind that of the South, change is the only option that we have in Northern Ireland. More of the same is just no longer sustainable.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will be brief. Thanks for giving way. The Member is right to say that we are one of the worst performers in these islands, and we have been for generations now. However, is it not also the case that, since the protocol came into effect, we have outperformed most other UK regions, which indicates that our preferential trading arrangements are doing some economic good for this region?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of David Honeyford David Honeyford Alliance

I welcome the intervention. A lot of what has been said from the DUP Benches was completely not reality. Business has been leading change, and trade across to GB has increased. Off the top of my head, I cannot remember the figure, but it is in tens of per cents; it is not a little amount. The trade deficit is decreasing, and our growth is rising, and that is to be welcomed.

Change is our only option. Our economy has been in deficit since the 1930s and remains heavily reliant on the public sector, and that is unsustainable. Our population is suffering under the resultant squeeze, and that has been brought into sharp focus with the Treasury's below-need funding of Northern Ireland. We can no longer afford to view our economy as a side issue. Our economy is central to creating the future that we all want to see. It affects job opportunities, salary levels and the amount of money that the public have in their pockets at the end of a week. It is our mortgage payments, rent, energy costs and the cost of fuel for our cars and to heat our homes. Our economic success is also central to improving and reforming our public-sector services, and at times we do not help ourselves by not getting on with transformation in some of the larger Departments.

As I have said several times in the Chamber, Alliance welcomes dual market access for goods, but, ultimately, that is second best to what we had as a full member of the EU, and Alliance regrets that we do not have the full benefits of EU membership, which include freedom of services, capital and movement of people. As a pro-European party, we want to be back in the EU.

I have also said several times that we must get moving with dual market access. We must maximise that opportunity and use it to turn our economy around. There is no point in having an opportunity while sitting back and looking at it or, even worse, continuing to walk up a cul-de-sac and argue about the past. We just need to get on with it and stop wasting time. As with many strategies that come through the House, it can be seen mistakenly that the strategy or agreement is the end goal rather than the starting point. We need to get off the starting line and aim for a future that we want to see. It is time to increase our efforts and our focus and to strive for better.

Alliance aspires to enhance North/South economic cooperation, bringing shared economic opportunity across the island of Ireland, alongside continuing to support our trade with GB, which remains our largest trading partner. Our business community is already leading that economic change.

Alliance has put forward proposals to focus and grow our foreign direct investment, but Invest NI should be working in partnership with IDA Ireland. The focus should be on attracting investment north of the border, not on trying to compete with IDA Ireland; on marketing ourselves to the world, much as we already do in tourism; on selling the benefits of investing in the North; and on prioritising working together to deliver jobs, increase our standard of living, increase investment here and, ultimately, raise our GDP.

The motion does not mention infrastructure, but infrastructure is essential to driving our economic growth. Alliance believes that we need to better connect North and South for the mutual benefit of every one of us. We need a focus on collaboration and connectivity, including fast railways, the A1 and A5 road upgrades and upgraded road and rail connections to our international airport to deliver higher passenger numbers and attract new European, American and international connections. That would all help to reposition and focus our economic growth towards the North.

If we are to fully exploit dual market access, it is essential that we focus on delivery and focus on it now. That requires more than words; it needs actions.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 11:30, 18 Mehefin 2024

I will vote against the motion, fundamentally because it embraces the most anti-democratic concept available in a democracy: a people of part of the United Kingdom should be disenfranchised from controlling and legislating for the laws that govern much of their economy. I have already made this point, but I make it again: to be a member of the EU single market, which sadly we are, you have to subjugate your own sovereignty to that of the EU. In the case of Northern Ireland, that means that to enjoy the misnomered benefits of the single market, we have to subject ourselves to 300 areas of law that we do not make and cannot change: EU laws — foreign laws. The motion embraces that anti-democratic concept of disenfranchising the people of this part of the United Kingdom by making them colonial slaves to a foreign jurisdiction.

Photo of Eóin Tennyson Eóin Tennyson Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. He talks about the democratic deficit, as he sees it, but surely he recognises that a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for parties that want those special arrangements and that there is therefore democratic support for the current arrangement.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

My mission to educate the Member will never cease. I remind him again that the United Kingdom voted to leave. It was a single vote for a single nation. Sadly, we in Northern Ireland did not get Brexit; we got left behind. That is the source of the problem.

The Europhiles of the House are very keen to talk about their democratic credentials when it suits them, but, on this subject, we get stony silence. They do not want to defend the right of their electorate to pass the laws that govern them. That is the Achilles heel of the entire concept of the EU single market.

As for the panacea of dual access, where is it? Mr Kennedy, the US envoy, told us about the wonderful avalanche of companies that were just waiting to come. Where are they? The truth is that it is our services industry that has expanded, not our manufacturing industry. The irony is that services are not covered by the protocol; they remain within a United Kingdom context. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Being in the EU single market is not benefiting the economy of Northern Ireland; instead, it is fettering our relationship with our biggest partner, hence the fundamental assault on our economic prosperity that access to the dual market brings.

It all comes back to the fundamental question: is it right — can it be proper — that a people be governed by laws that they do not make and cannot change? My answer is that that can never be right.

It did not have to be like this. There was an obvious answer, which actually emanated from some of those who worked for the EU. Sir Jonathan Faull, Professor Weiler and Professor Sarmento all suggested that the answer to the Irish border problem was mutual recognition, and so it was. However, the Irish Government, in their political pursuit of unifying the island of Ireland through the protocol, rejected what is the basis of international trade elsewhere: if you want to make goods that are destined for a foreign market, you make them to the standards of that foreign market and vice versa, and you mutually enforce each other's laws. That is the fundamental element of international trade. We do not need a protocol. We do not need that which is encumbering our economy. What we needed was what exists elsewhere: mutual enforcement of each other's laws on goods. Instead, we have put up a partitioning border in the Irish Sea, and we are now spending £192 million building border posts to enforce that which is wholly unnecessary when it comes to securing trade between and within two independent sovereign entities, such as the EU is and such as the United Kingdom should be.

The motion is laced with its political ambition of dismantling the Union, and the protocol is the greatest aid to that imaginable. That is why it is couched in the terms that it is.

I welcome the fact that the DUP has found reverse gear from 'Safeguarding the Union', when it was embracing the idea of dual market access. The DUP now tells us that it wants rid of EU law. Good, because you cannot have dual market access and you cannot be in the EU single market if you are subject to EU law. The volte-face of Gavin Robinson is welcome. It is a pity that he was one of those who told us the lies that the Irish Sea border was gone and therefore lost the trust, as his party did, of those who are of a unionist persuasion.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I thank the Members who tabled the motion, and I welcome the opportunity to speak to it. I assure the proposer of the motion that the detail that he has outlined will be responded to with detail and that it is not merely rhetoric that I am deploying on this issue. A number of Members contributed to the debate, and I thank them for their contributions.

The certainty in trading arrangements delivered by the Windsor framework provides us with a unique set of trading arrangements and offers unique opportunities for the North, both in inward investment and trade growth. It positions our region as a unique gateway for the sale of goods to two of the world's largest markets: Britain and the EU. The dual market access means that we are the only location where business can export goods to both British and EU markets free from customs declarations, rules of origin certificates and non-tariff barriers. Businesses based here can use EU inputs in their products without having to import them, enhancing the benefits for companies serving the British market. That is a unique proposition for businesses here, as well as those seeking a pivotal location from which to service British and EU markets, recalibrate supply chains or design, develop and sell products across key industries. Those industries include life and health sciences, aerospace, electronics and machinery, chemicals, consumer goods and agri-food goods. The benefits afforded by dual market access further enhance our already strong position as a prime location to establish or grow a business based primarily on the skills of our people.

The trade and investment opportunities available through our dual market access position of supporting more businesses to export and attracting inward investment will be a key catalyst in achieving our economic plan of a highly productive, zero-carbon, regionally balanced economy with good jobs. Indeed, exporting is a key driver of productivity growth, and, whilst the North performs favourably through a number of our businesses that sell outside the local market, there is significant potential to increase the value of our external sales. Our unique position of having access to both the EU single market and the British market provides us with the conditions to grow our external sales at scale. We can use that access and the appeal that it provides to foreign firms to invest and do business here to our advantage in pursuit of attracting high-quality, highly productive inward investment, which would benefit all parts of the North.

My Department and its partner agencies are working closely together to understand how best to maximise the opportunities that dual market access provides and how best to support businesses to take advantage of them. My Department has undertaken analysis and published information that uses regulatory indices that were developed by the UK Trade Policy Observatory to help businesses to better understand the post-EU exit regulatory environment within individual sectors. That work will assist businesses to better understand the types of products and sectors where dual market access opportunities could be exploited. We have also worked with Queen's University to publish information that helps businesses to understand the complexity of the regulatory landscape in the North.

To build on that work, my Department and Invest NI organised the first co-design workshop with a range of local business representatives. Output of the co-design session with businesses is a forward plan activity in addition to current Invest NI activities, including the establishment of a dedicated team in Invest NI to maximise dual market access opportunities, which will work in collaboration with colleagues in the Department for the Economy, InterTradeIreland and relevant partners in Britain; a programme of engagement with businesses across the North to support them to maximise opportunities and navigate current trading arrangements; and a schedule of quarterly engagement with business representative organisations to continue the process of co-design. My Department has brought together key providers on export support and advice through the export forum. That will help to ensure that providers are joined up and working seamlessly together, delivering effective advice and services to our businesses and supporting them to expand into external markets.

Our unique dual market access adds to the proposition that makes the North an attractive place in which to invest. Work is well under way by Invest NI to ramp up the awareness and promotion of our dual market access proposition in key markets. Invest NI has expanded its on-the-ground resources across key EU markets to identify and maximise opportunities for businesses across the North and to promote the continued ease of sourcing goods from the region for buyers and our unique market access arrangements for investors. Invest NI has been promoting the advantage of dual market access in its discussions with buyers and investors, and it will supplement that with a campaign utilising social media, online and in-person events and awareness raising at trade events. It has developed and is implementing a programme of trade visits and services to promote opportunities for local firms.

Further work is to be done with EU member states to highlight the fact that, unlike in Britain, Brexit has not introduced any barriers to importing from the North. However, disrupting long-established arrangements does not come without difficulties. I am aware that some businesses are experiencing issues with, for example, supply chains or delivery of their goods. Indeed, I am aware of a business in my constituency that is experiencing issues with sending orders to the EU and receivers experiencing customer charges. My officials and I will continue to raise those issues on behalf of businesses with British Government and EU officials, with whom we will continue to seek practical and pragmatic resolutions.

Article 14 — specifically, article 14(b) — of the protocol provides for the North/South Ministerial Council to raise issues to the Specialised Committee on the implementation of the protocol where there are perceived problems with all-Ireland trade. That could represent a useful mechanism by which to raise issues directly with decision makers on both the British and EU sides. If appropriate, and in consultation with the North/South Ministerial Council, I would be willing to explore the use of that existing mechanism. To support sustainable growth of the economy, we will need to continue to work in collaboration with both the British and Irish Governments on areas of shared opportunities and challenges. Indeed, as Britain and Ireland represent the two largest markets that businesses here sell to, it is clearly in our economic interest to collaborate in order to maximise the opportunities that are associated with dual market access, growing trade on a North/South and east-west basis.

Collaboration will also be key to unlocking the tremendous potential that the all-island economy possesses. The Windsor framework arrangements and our access to the EU single market for goods have protected the thriving all-Ireland economy. It is important to build on that for the benefit of all our people. The value of the all-Ireland economy and cross-border trade to growing exports will be important to achieving economic development. Sales to the South of Ireland grew by £1 billion, or 18%, in 2022. The total value of those sales is now £6·4 billion. I want us to make the most of our dual market access opportunities to support more businesses to export. For many, cross-border trade is the first step in developing that capacity.

Indeed, research shows that businesses that trade cross-border are more successful, resilient and profitable. Businesses that operate cross-border continue to benefit from the degree of mobility in the labour market provided by the common travel area, and that has been unaffected by the Windsor framework.

The work of InterTradeIreland has been instrumental in growing the all-Ireland economy. When it first opened its doors in 1999, cross-border trade was valued at €2 billion. The potential of the all-Ireland market has not yet been fully realised, but it is today valued at €12 billion, which is an all-time high. InterTradeIreland, in its role as the only all-Ireland trade development agency, has done a lot of foundation work on bringing agencies together through collaboration. Those agencies include InterTradeIreland, Invest NI, Enterprise Ireland, the Department for the Economy and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Over the past two years, that work has been positively influenced by the funding commitment from the Shared Island Fund for the enterprise scheme, which is valued at €30 million. That investment, over the next three to four years, will allow the economic development agencies on the island to work together to enhance collaboration, develop shared programmes and support businesses, North and South. It represents the first time that all three economic development agencies across the island will work together to deliver such an initiative. That will be a boost to the whole island and particularly the border region by addressing ingrained disadvantage and by increasing economic inclusion and innovation growth.

The Government in Dublin recognise, as do I, the importance of growing and sustaining the strong economic ties across the island that will be key to our economic growth and shared future. By cooperating on shared challenges and opportunities, we will be able to better realise the potential of the all-Ireland economy. Cooperation is already occurring in areas such as tourism, with the award of €7·6 million by the Irish Government through the Shared Island Fund for a programme of work on a tourism project that is to run from 2023 to 2025. The project will develop a new all-Ireland tourism brand collaboration and marketing initiative to be administered by tourism agencies on a cross-border basis. We must also pursue other areas, such as those that relate to the net zero agenda, on an all-island basis.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Minister will recall that one of the boasts of the 'Safeguarding the Union' Command Paper — the DUP's deal — was that legislative action would be taken on the duty to cooperate North/South. Has the Minister seen any sign of that?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We continue to develop the outworkings of all of that. I can assure the Member that organic growth, North to South and South to North, has already been significant, and we will continue to provide whatever support we can in that regard. If that requires legislative action, that is something that we will look at. My sense is that some of the rhetoric in the Command Paper was more about reassuring people than providing any significant impetus. The foolishness of trying to put up barriers to something that has organically been very successful over the past 10 years and that has benefited local businesses from all areas and communities across the North is nonsensical.

Pursuing a circular economy will require all-island collaboration and increased resource efficiency to foster innovations through clusters and networks, reduce waste, stimulate secondary materials and strengthen supply chains.

I will move on to trade. Following discussions between my Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the first joint international trade mission will take place later this year. The mission will be delivered in partnership by Invest NI, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland to grow jointly the economy on the island. Those organisations will support a joint delegation of fintech, edtech and related technology companies from across the island, with a view to increasing export sales. Building on that cooperation, Invest NI will also look to identify potential opportunities for further and more systemic collaboration with Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and other organisations. I will also continue to work with the British Government, through the east-west structures that were set up recently and the new Intertrade UK body, although, to date, we have had no clarification from the British Government on Intertrade UK's structure, role or responsibilities.

Dual market access provides the North with a unique selling point, and we must leverage that position in order to grow our exports and trade and to attract investment.

I turn now to some of the points that were raised in the debate. I hope that I have addressed the detail of what the proposer is seeking through the motion. I can assure him that we continue to work on those issues. The DUP complained about the internal trade barriers and argued against our denial that those barriers existed. In the whole Brexit debate, most of us who were on the other side of thinking that Brexit was a bad idea argued precisely the point that introducing trade barriers would disrupt trade right across, and that is essentially what has happened as a consequence of Brexit. The protocol mitigates the worst impacts of Brexit.

The other issue, mutual recognition, was also promoted by Jim Allister in his contribution. Mutual recognition of standards has been consistently rejected by the UK and the EU. It is unlikely that it will become an answer to the Brexit issue in the near future, so the Windsor framework remains the only viable option to ensure free flow of trade North/South and east-west.

Steve Aiken questioned the fitness of Invest NI. It has been through a very significant review, and the outworkings of that continue and will have the support of the Department in getting to that space. There have been very significant changes in Invest NI, and there will continue to be significant changes. I am sure that he is reassured, though, given his references to IDA Ireland, that the new chief executive has experience of working in IDA Ireland and will bring that experience to his job in Invest NI.

I am coming to the end of my contribution. I thank the proposers and those who contributed to the discussion. As a consequence of being given some relief in relation to the whole Brexit debacle, we need to continue to get on with making the best advantage of that. We have already begun that work. The response of businesses to that has been evident over the last period of time. We will continue to do that work in our own businesses, but also with the possibility of attracting investment from other countries.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am pleased to be able to wind up on today's debate, which was fulsome and constructive; many interesting points were raised. Before I come to my substantive remarks, it is important to say that, in taking advantage of dual market access, there is no detriment to anyone's constitutional perspective. That is important. Believing in dual market access and supporting the potential for dual market access does not encumber or get in the way of anyone's constitutional aspiration, despite what Mr Allister and others say.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will come on to some other remarks, but I will give way briefly to Mr Allister.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

How can it but interfere with one's constitutional integrity if you move from a situation of being governed by laws made in your own country — you elect representatives to make those laws — to a situation where you subject yourself to foreign laws over which you have no control? How could that not be a huge constitutional and democratic deficit?

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

If you believe in the perfect fetish of sovereignty at all costs, and that is the thing that you focus on exclusively, and you think that is how you define identity and citizenship, I accept that. I have also accepted and acknowledged that, for many unionists, the protocol has presented difficulties. It would be nice if the Member would acknowledge that, for many of us, Brexit presented profound challenges to how we see ourselves as Europeans, and, for many of us who believe deeply in an open border on this island, it was profoundly offensive. He constantly pushes the idea of constitutional perfection. We do not have constitutional perfection here, because we are a complicated place. I believe in a new Ireland without a border on it; he does not. I respect his position. I would appreciate it if he would respect that many of us are offended by the very fact of Brexit itself, but I want to move on and make some remarks in relation to the broader debate.

Our motion was long. We made the Clerk read out an entirely long motion because we wanted it to be detailed, to be specific and to have multiple aspects and clauses to it. What does that mean? It means that the motion offers real opportunity not just for maximising dual market access but for creating a substantive plan for dual market access and how we leverage it and benefit from it. I want to reflect on a couple of the comments that were made.

I welcome the fact that Mr Delargy acknowledged that this was a unique opportunity for the North. I will touch on some of what Deborah Erskine said. She is coming back into the Chamber now: perfect timing. Deborah Erskine said that the UK internal market is important and that our motion did not reflect that. Au contraire: it states that the movement of goods from east to west is critically important. It also states that the UK Government will have a role in dual market access and maximising its benefits. That is therefore an unfair reflection of what our motion states.

Mrs Erskine also said that article 14 has nothing to do with benefits from the protocol. I do not think that that is true either. I do not think that there is any fair reading of what article 14 of the protocol states. It does not suggest that it could not have the role that we outline. By the way, some of the points that are made repeatedly about the lack of democratic input are and were designed to be answered specifically by article 14 of the protocol, which offers a role for the North/South Ministerial Council, a body that is democratically accountable to Members of the Chamber. I am afraid, therefore, that that point just does not stand.

She talked about mutual recognition. As has been said by the Minister, mutual recognition has been, with the greatest possible respect, virtually laughed out of court by any serious economist or trade specialist, particularly in relation to the island of Ireland, which has very specific needs and requirements. It is important to say that Mrs Erskine represents Fermanagh and South Tyrone, a border constituency. There are cattle that graze in County Monaghan and County Fermanagh. That is not an unusual thing. She will be aware that there are cross-border farms, and, of course, things such as our dairy industry are entirely cross-border. Whether or not you believe in constitutional change, you cannot pretend that the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland are on opposite sides of the world; they are not.

Eóin Tennyson pointed to Almac, which is a striking example of a regulated company, as he said. It is the case that those that operate in highly regulated environments, including pharmaceuticals, are exactly the kinds of companies that are well placed to benefit from the protocol, because they have substantive regulatory operations and may want the political and regulatory certainty that comes from our protocol arrangements. He is also right when he says that political certainty and some stability here are critical to us being able to leverage investment.

I welcome very strongly the input of Steve Aiken, who acknowledged that there is a degree of balance in our motion. It is important to acknowledge that, as Steve Aiken said, for a significant period, IDA Ireland had been strikingly focused on the needs of the Republic. I do not dispute that at all. In fact, I think that I said it in my opening remarks. It is the case that IDA Ireland and Invest NI have operated as competitors and rivals. Clearly, that does not have to be the case. There is the potential for partnership, and our motion is all about delivering on that sense of partnership.

There were a number of inputs from other Members. David Honeyford talked about the benefits, and he outlined the Alliance Party's position. I reassure him that the SDLP has been talking about this for some time too, but I am glad that we are on the same page. It is important that parties can collaborate on such matters.

Since it came up on a couple of occasions with my dear colleagues to my right, I want to touch briefly on the point about us rejoining the EU. As someone who worked in Whitehall for years and worked there in the middle of the Brexit years — that is, in large part, why I am here now — I think that, for the foreseeable future, it is strikingly, if not vanishingly, unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU. I genuinely wish that it were otherwise for a whole range of reasons, including personal ones. I do not think that it is very likely, in part because significant trade-offs would have to be made. An enormous amount of political courage and political bandwidth would be required for it to happen.

The truth is — if people were honest with themselves, they would know this — that the only meaningful way back into the EU — to be clear, this is not what today's debate is about — is constitutional change on this island and a new Ireland. That is my position. I recognise that others may differ from it, but I think that it is the only realistic one. To be clear, that is not what this motion is about. The motion is not about the constitution; it is about our current constitutional position and maximising the benefits that we have and can see from dual market access. As I said in my remarks, we are a complicated place. We are a dual place, in many ways. Dual market access reflects that dualism and the fact that we face both ways. We face both ways politically and culturally in terms of allegiance. Why not derive an economic benefit from it?

I welcome the fact that the Minister has appraised and is supportive of the broad principles of the motion. We have sought to be constructive in opposition the whole way through our time here.

I acknowledge the fact that the Minister is engaged on the all-island economy and has committed significant time to cross-border work. He will recognise that we will want to hold him to his word on some of that stuff and to keep corresponding with him about the implementation of the specifics of the motion, which calls specifically for an action plan to be provided to the Assembly later in the year. We would like to see the Minister provide that in some form and will ask him for that. Let me be clear, however, that I welcome his intent and that we look forward to that intent being implemented through action.

I also point out that the use of article 14 and the making of representations to the NSMC is not to prioritise the NSMC over any other body. Any other body that exists under the Windsor framework or even that exists more informally is welcome. I would like to see those of us in the Chamber having observer status in the EU Parliament and being able to make representations there. I see some raised eyebrows across the Chamber: I recognise that that is not universally popular, but I am up for any opportunity that allows us to input or improve our input into how the protocol works and, ultimately, to maximise the economic benefits. Those economic benefits are real; we enjoy them already. Think how great they could be if there were political stability here and proper buy-in. That would not compromise or undermine anyone's constitutional position; quite the opposite, in my view.

I commend today's first Opposition day motion to the Assembly. I thank everybody for their constructive contributions, and I very much hope that the motion will pass.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 50; Noes 20


Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Dr Archibald, Mr Baker, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Miss Brogan, Mr Butler, Mr Chambers, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Mr Donnelly, Mr Durkan, Ms Egan, Mr Elliott, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Miss Hargey, Mr Honeyford, Ms Hunter, Ms Kimmins, Mr McAleer, Miss McAllister, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McMurray, Mr McNulty, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Mathison, Mr Muir, Ms Mulholland, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Ms Nicholl, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Ms Sheerin, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Durkan, Mr McGrath


Mr Allister, Mr Bradley, Mr Brett, Mr Brooks, Ms Brownlee, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Robinson

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Brooks, Mr Harvey

Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly affirms the huge opportunity afforded to our local economy as a result of the dual market access available to businesses here, allowing the seamless movement of goods into both the EU and UK markets; recognises that this opportunity has the potential to deliver tangible benefits in terms of job creation, inward investment, improved wages and productivity and improved regional balance; acknowledges the importance of continued efforts to ease the flow of goods moving from east to west and also the need to mitigate damage to North/South services and trade not covered by the protocol/Windsor framework; notes that deriving full benefits from our advantageous trading position will require focused intergovernmental and inter-agency work; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to work with the Irish Government to establish a joint Invest NI/IDA Ireland working group, drawing on expertise from InterTradeIreland, interested business groups and, where relevant, the UK Department for Business and Trade and the EU Directorate-General, to develop a clearly defined strategy to maximise the huge economic advantages afforded to Northern Ireland, with the aim of providing reports to the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which will in turn furnish recommendations under article 14 of the protocol to the Specialised Committee on the protocol/Windsor framework; and further calls on the Minister to provide an update to the Assembly on the establishment of this working group and its actions not later than the end of 2024.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 12:15, 18 Mehefin 2024

Members, please take your ease while we change the top Table.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ní Chuilín] in the Chair)