Two weeks ago, I travelled to Belfast with other members of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. One of the purposes of what was literally a flying visit was to assess the local impact of the operation of the EU Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol on life in the Province.
We spoke to members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as to ministers in the devolved administration and senior civil servants. The message we received was that the Protocol was continuing to cause problems for businesses and citizens. It is difficult to source products from mainland UK. The grace period for the use of UK-licensed medicines would shortly expire. There was a diversion of trade, with goods increasingly being supplied from the EU, chiefly the Irish Republic.
It was, in short, hard to find anyone who had a good word to say about the Protocol. Most people felt strongly that the provisions of Article 13 should be utilised to renegotiate its terms. Article 13 specifically contemplates the renegotiation of the Protocol, demonstrating that, contrary to mistaken belief, its provisions are not set in stone.
Several also felt that Article 16 should be invoked immediately, to introduce safeguards to address the distortionary impact the Protocol is having on Northern Ireland.
That, of course, is what Lord Frost, the cabinet minister charged with overseeing the EU negotiations, is contemplating.
Lord Frost is currently locked in intensive discussions with his EU opposite number, Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič. The most recent communiqué from the talks, issued last week, indicated that, though progress had been made, there was still some considerable way to go. Lord Frost made clear that the conditions for invoking Article 16 were satisfied, and that the Government was willing to proceed down that route if there were no further concessions from the EU.
I was impressed with Belfast and the people I met. The last few years, since the conclusion of the Belfast Agreement, have been transformational for Northern Ireland. The Protocol is clearly having a destabilising effect on the Agreement; and that should not be allowed to continue.
There was some good news last week for British sheep farmers. On Thursday, the US Department of Agriculture announced that the ban on the importation of lamb and other sheep meat was to be lifted.
The ban had been in place since 1989, following the outbreak of BSE in the UK. The change will come into force on 3rd January, and will remove the barriers to trade for exporters to the huge US market. It is a significant achievement for Defra and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which has been working on the issue for several years.
The Welsh red meat promotion agency, Hybu Cig Cymru, and the other promotion agencies are now working with the Government to maximise the benefit of the US decision for the benefit of farmers.
Coming at this time of year, it amounts to a welcome early Christmas present for Welsh lamb producers.