Deputy leader of the Alliance Party and the party’s sole representative in Westminster talks to David Whelan about Protocol negotiations, threats to devolution, and the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
May 2022’s Assembly election was a watershed moment for the Alliance Party, more than doubling its seat share to 17, and firmly establishing itself as the third biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Farry expresses his frustration that a fresh wave of MLAs has been denied the opportunity, to date, to operate the full potential of the institutions. However, he is cognisant that MLAs’ frustrations, as individuals, “pale into insignificance” when compared to struggles for people in Northern Ireland on a range of challenges from the cost-of-living to the health crisis. Citizens, he asserts, badly need an Executive in place “to at least provide some semblance of structure where decisions can be taken, and reforms can be pursued”.
On 19 January 2023, a deadline set by the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP for the restoration of the Executive passed, mandating an Assembly election within 12 weeks. Although no decision has yet been taken, it is believed likely that amidst UK-EU negotiations on a Brexit deal, that Heaton-Harris will seek a further extension to the timeline.
The Alliance Party deputy leader does not believe that the momentum of May’s 2021 Assembly election could be lost in a future election, despite wider observations that any such election will likely be framed by discourse in support of or opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol agreement.
“We do not know for sure whether there will be an election, but we certainly do not fear one,” he states, adding: “I think anyone taking a decision around the holding of an election must operate with a degree of caution as to what it would achieve.”
Expressing his belief that the party has carved out “a clear identity” and outlining a confidence of retaining its “broad constituency”, he is also acutely aware of the fine margins which exist in the context of gaining or losing seats in an single transferable vote (STV) system.
However, Farry believes that an election in the context of ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU could lead to further polarisation between parties in Northern Ireland, and obscure the opportunity for a pragmatic agreement to restore the Executive.
On the potential for an election to be framed as a referendum-style vote on the Brexit outcome, Farry insists that Brexit is not the most important issue currently facing the people of Northern Ireland.
“The most important issue is the lack of an Assembly,” he stresses. “In addition to that we are not currently implementing badly needed reforms to health and education, nor do we have a sustainable financial situation. Of course, many believe that Brexit is the underlying driver of these issues, and the ultimate reason we do not have an Assembly.”
Alongside party colleagues, the MP for North Down has been vocal on the need for reform of the Northern Ireland institutions to enable parties that wish to see the Assembly and Executive operational to do so, even in the absence of buy-in from all parties should a fresh local agreement cannot be reached.
However, reading the mood music in Westminster, Farry declares himself as “fairly optimistic” that a deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol between the EU and the UK can be reached in the coming weeks.
“If someone wants to secure the union, rather than taking a purist approach, it requires a pragmatic and shared approach. It requires a shared approach to building a fair, equal, and inclusive society.”
Stephen Farry MP, Alliance Party
The basis for such optimism, he explains, is the decrease in open hostility between the UK and EU in late 2022, correlating with greater levels of political engagement between the negotiating parties.
Pointing to the European Commission’s agreement to extend the grace period for veterinary medicines for three years in mid-December 2022, as well as the UK’s granting of access to the EU to a database of real-time information on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as evidence of improved relations, Farry believes such agreement provides a “landing zone” on a range of other challenges, not least, red and green trade channels.
“What is being asked of the EU is that it allows the UK to manage its single market, and for that, there needs to be high levels of trust and confidence. Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, proposed by the UK Government, was the opposite of that. I think we are now back in a space where trust and confidence can be built.”
Quizzed on the party’s outlook on potential changes to the Protocol, Farry explains that while Alliance was “never enthusiastic” about the Protocol, it accepts and understands its necessity in the context of a possible hard Brexit.
Dismissing earlier attempts by the UK Government to have the EU change its negotiating mandate and move beyond the Protocol, he stresses that the mechanisms of the Protocol not only enable review but allow other agreements to be bolted on top.
“We want to see the things that work preserved and the things that do not work fixed. We want to see challenges minimised and the need for checks minimised as much as possible. We think most of that can be done within the confines of the protocol itself.”
On the suggestion that the Protocol, which necessitates alignment on many aspects of European law and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, is a constitutional threat to the UK, Farry believes that the absence of these concerns from the agenda of the business community in Northern Ireland is evidence that a gap exists between stakeholders in the local economy and “those who are very purist about sovereignty”.
The MP cautions against the UK Government acting unilaterally to scrap the Protocol, believing such an outcome is unrealistic, given the economic implications on international reputation and trade competition, in the context of a stagnant UK economy.
Of course, even if the UK and EU were to secure an agreement, a subsequent agreement to restore consociationalism is not a forgone conclusion. With negotiations progressing, the DUP has reiterated its stance that any post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland must pass its seven tests, if it is to receive the party’s support.
Farry maintains that the Alliance Party takes a must less-stringent approach. Calling for any agreement to be both sustainable and legally binding, the deputy leader identifies the preservation of dual market access as the only bottom line.
“We are very flexible as to where this goes, but it has to be within the framework of the UK-EU discussions. For us, the only show in town is a pragmatic deal,” he says.
Calling out the DUP for what he describes as an “abolitionist approach” to the Protocol, Farry believes that failure to return to the Assembly sends out a message that government in Northern Ireland does not work and undermines any possibility that a means exists to a shared approach when handling Brexit.
“If someone wants to secure the union, rather than taking a purist approach, it requires a pragmatic and shared approach. It requires a shared approach to building a fair, equal, and inclusive society,” he states. “If the DUP says no to a deal and continues to boycott the Assembly, then the current governance model of civil servants ‘keeping the lights on’ runs out of road.”
He adds: “For a party which is unionist, its current approach is utterly reckless and completely counterproductive to what is its defining political objective.”
As the Alliance Party’s sole MP, and in the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive, Farry’s role in scrutinising and influencing legislation in relation to Northern Ireland and Westminster is enhanced.
One such example is his recent proposed amendment to the UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which proposes a sunset clause automatically repealing all EU retained legislation on 31 December 2023, unless Government specifies otherwise.
Farry strongly objects to what he describes as a “bonfire” of retained EU law, which he believes will have serious implications UK-wide implications for well-established environmental and climate protections, equality provision, and human rights obligations.
It is estimated that as many as 500 pieces of local legislation would be subject to revocation under the Bill, which is currently being scrutinised in the House of Lords.
Farry’s amendment proposes an exemption for all Northern Ireland-specific retained EU legislation from being scrapped. Raising his opposition to the Bill on a UK-wide basis, the MP further outlines two specific challenges for Northern Ireland.
Firstly, Article two of the Protocol provides a degree of protection on the diminution of rights but Farry believes that how that is interpreted is subjective and could lead to uncertainty.
Secondly, there is a capacity challenge. The need to review or update over 500 pieces of secondary legislation by the end of the year would put a potentially unmanageable burden on government departments. However, more importantly, Farry believes the legal implications in the absence of political sign-off could result in a major gap in existing rights and legislation.
The deputy leader references similar efforts by Scotland and Wales to retain control over areas that are recognised as devolved. “Not only is this government Bill about the pursuit of an ideological Brexit but it also interferes in the devolved structures, with the UK Government stepping in and making changes that the devolved nations should be making themselves.”
In a similar vein, Farry has accused the UK Government of “stoking a culture war” in its objection to Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. Passed by the Scottish Parliament, the Bill has been blocked by the UK Government on the basis that having two systems of gender recognition north and south would create complications in equality law.
Farry agrees with the Scottish Government that the Bill is being used as a political weapon by the UK Government and is outspoken in his concern about similar instances of perceived undermining of devolution closer to home.
In particular, he points to the remit of the UK Government’s Department of Levelling Up, which recently established a presence in Belfast, in allocating replacement EU structural funding.
“The replacement of structural funds should have been handed over to the relevant institutions in Northern Ireland to maximise impact, avoid duplication, and mitigate gaps emerging. There is an absence of coordination between the levelling up department and the departments in Northern Ireland. By operating in a devolved space, there is tension that will inevitably lead to a situation where money is not being spent effectively and efficiently,” he insists.
Concluding, Farry returns to the likelihood of a political settlement in Northern Ireland that would see the institutions restored.
Interestingly, he sees the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement as a prime opportunity for some reform of the Agreement. “Whilst we have always been strong supporters of the Good Friday Agreement, we hold the view that the devolved institutions were never supposed to be written in stone forever,” he explains.
“The past 25 years have seen minimal changes and we believe there should be wider discussion, not just on how we form an Executive, but also the system of designations and voting in the Assembly.
“We hope the anniversary, with its symbolic importance, will provide an opportunity for serious discussions on these potential reforms.”