Our exit from the European Union will usher in a period of great change and opportunity for communities across the United Kingdom. As we leave, the Democratic Unionist Party will act in the national interest, ensuring that the process benefits all regions and protects the historic ties between them. Northern Ireland has particular circumstances and these must be recognised and addressed.
The DUP has made the prosperity of the union the guiding star of our approach to Brexit. We make no apology for that. This is not, as some portray it, a strategy that ignores the need for practical solutions or one which risks peace in Northern Ireland.
Instead, the economic reality makes it essential; 72 per cent of trade that flows in and out of Belfast Harbour is with Great Britain. Over 70 per cent of sales in manufacturing and the agrifood sector take place within the United Kingdom.
The UK’s place, as one of the world’s largest economies, is integral to thousands of local jobs. The prosperity these markets provide to households and businesses is entrenched in the social fabric of communities in every part of Northern Ireland.
There are those who wish to disrupt these links by tying Northern Ireland to a different trading relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK post-Brexit. Motives differ; some want to weaken our rightful place in the union, while others wrongly place a disproportionate emphasis on cross-border relations.
Yet this special economic status would create unacceptable internal barriers to Great Britain for local exporters and consumers. Economically it would cut Northern Ireland adrift from its primary marketplace, jeopardising jobs and growth, and socially this would risk leaving many young people disengaged and marginalised. Ultimately, it is this and not the notion of a hard border that may be the biggest threat to peace and progress.
The real test of Brexit is ensuring that our east-west relationship is understood and unhindered in any agreement. The EU has said the outcome must uphold the Belfast agreement in all its parts but this must not give Brussels license to renegotiate the terms of cross-border relations to serve their own interests. Special consideration does not mean tying a future executive to joint standards and policies over many years while the rest of the UK follows a different path.
Brussels has made a positive contribution to progress in Northern Ireland through consecutive peace programmes. However, its final act should not be to overreach into affairs over which they have no authority. UK negotiators should show their mettle in ensuring that this is the case.
Significant progress has been made toward agreeing joint principles on the retention of the common travel area (CTA). This is positive. The UK has said there will be no physical checks beyond those currently in place and the Republic of Ireland will continue to be able to fulfil its EU free movement obligations. This seems a sensible course.
The future movement of goods, on the other hand, requires further work. The European Council previously committed to “flexible and imaginative solutions” but so far their proposals have been lacking. The UK government’s position papers suggest useful proposals such as an exemption for cross-border SMEs from any new requirements and the prospect of a trusted traders scheme.
However, the EU’s block on opening trade talks has curtailed meaningful progress. Challenges to cross-border trade flows can only be fully addressed when we know the wider principles of future UK-EU trade. The current delay has created a vacuum in which commentators and politicians, including Ireland’s Taoiseach, have lamented the prospect of a hard border. It is time these talking-shop tactics ended.
Instead, Leo Varadkar must put his own shoulder to the wheel and impress upon his Brussels counterparts just what is at stake - and not just for Northern Ireland.
The UK and the Irish Republic trade roughly £1bn worth of goods and services every week. Over 40 per cent of Irish agrifood is sold in the UK. We should not pretend that the impacts of Brexit are isolated to one economy. It is time to remove all barriers to finding mutual solutions.
The DUP takes its commitments to presenting the Northern Ireland case seriously. We were humbled by the mandate received in June’s general election. At no point in recent history have the stakes been so high. It is therefore significant that Northern Ireland now commands an unrivalled position at Westminster.
It is key that we do not miss this opportunity to provide change that brings benefits and certainty to businesses, households and families. We will use our influence to pursue a Brexit deal that delivers for every part of the Kingdom.