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07 Jul 2022

Decades-long neglect from Westminster has led the North to Protocol wrangle insists Brexiteer Habib

Decades-long neglect from Westminster has led the North to Protocol wrangle insists Brexiteer Habib

Ben Habib back in 2019 when campaigning for the Brexit Party in the UK General Election.

Prominent Brexit campaigner, Ben Habib, has stated that both nationalists and unionists in the North of Ireland should be “bloody p****d off with Westminster”.

The former Brexit Party Member of the European Parliament was speaking following last week's decision by the Court of Appeal in Belfast not to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol that has resulted in a customs border in the Irish Sea between the North and Great Britain.

Habib insists that regardless of where one stands on whether the North should re-unify with the rest of Ireland or stay in the United Kingdom, the neglect shown by both Conservative and Labour governments in Westminster has helped ensure the North finds itself in its current mire with regard to the post-Brexit deal Protocol.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with The Derry News, Habib said: “Whether you're a nationalist or a unionist, Westminster has a great deal to bloody answer for. I think it's because there's no votes for either the Labour or Conservative parties – the latter do participate in elections but hardly. The Tories haven't made it their own in Northern Ireland have they.

“It's a tragedy the way Northern Ireland has been treated. I've come to learn a lot after engaging about Northern Ireland with the Brexit issue. I'm just appalled by the utter neglect by Westminster. Be you a nationalist or a unionist – it doesn't matter – you should be bloody p****d off with Westminster.

“Especially in the North West with regards to investment and jobs it receives compared to Belfast.

“Not to mention how long it takes to get a train down from Derry to Belfast and back – which is slower than Victorian (era) trains.

“It is an outrage that in 2022, you can't get between the two big cities in Northern Ireland at faster than 30 miles an hour.

“The fact that just under 30 per cent of Derry are living below the poverty line is also an outrage.

“A small country like Northern Ireland should be a success. It should be galvanised quite easily. People keep saying to me that there's no chance of Scotland becoming independent as economically it 'cannot stand on its own two feet'. The idea that it won't learn to float on its own is such a flawed concept. It's amazing what people can do when they're driven to do it.

“Given the right tools, Northern Ireland – who may only have a population of 1.8million – it could be a Tiger Economy. What it requires is someone with an intellect – slightly better than Brandon Lewis' – to be fighting for their cause in Westminster.

“It needs a new and proper settlement from Westminster which benefits Northern Ireland and takes into account that it has the Republic in the south and leveraging off the island's economy as a whole.

“Northern Ireland needs an integrated view of how to make it work and I'm afraid the monkeys in our Government are not up to the job.

“The Government has done nothing – I would go further, whether you're a nationalist or a unionist, the British Government has neglected Northern Ireland for decades.

“It has contributed money to the European Union – I calculate somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent of all infrastructure spend in the Republic of Ireland has come from the United Kingdom because of money that's gone from us to the EU that has come back to the Republic of Ireland.

“The fantastic airport that Dublin has, the fantastic infrastructure, roads and housing – all that money came from the EU with 20 to 30 per cent of it coming from the UK.

“Nothing like that amount of money has been spent by Westminster on Northern Ireland.

“However, this is not about chucking money at Northern Ireland and trying to write its deficit, this is about having a vision for Northern Ireland to make it a proper economic powerhouse.

“The Government is still failing to do it. If the best that the Government can do is appoint Brandon Lewis as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it is clearly holding Northern Ireland in contempt.

“The man is a first-class fool – he has not got a clue. On January 1, 2021, Brandon Lewis tweeted, 'There is no Irish Sea border'. This is from the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland who three months before that, got up in the House of Commons and said that we are going to have to break international law in a specific and limited fashion in order to bring Northern Ireland back into the United Kingdom.

“He said that in September 2019 when he presumably meant he understood that there would be a border in the Irish Sea only to tweet a few months later that there would be no border in the Irish Sea.

“The man is a buffoon – an intellectual failure. If he went to university, I'd like to meet the Dons that gave him his place because he should have been booted out.”

Habib was one of the high-profile appellants at the Appeal Court along with TUV party leader, Jim Allister, and former Labour politician, Kate Hoey.

They had argued unsuccessfully in their bid to have the Protocol – negotiated by Boris Johnson's Conservative Government with the European Union – with Habib stating that the ruling, which they intend to take to the Supreme Court, had confirmed that the North was no longer on an equal footing with Great Britain.

He added: “You say it's a setback and you're right of course. Prima facie it is a setback but what we have had confirmed to us is that the Act of Union is no longer in tact and that Northern Ireland is no longer on an equal footing with Great Britain.

“Laws are being made for Northern Ireland by a foreign body without any right of veto either in Westminster or in Stormont for those laws.

“We've also had it confirmed that the consent mechanism set out in the Belfast Agreement – which was so vital for the unionist community to support it – are not required to be adhered to in order to change the constitutional set-up of Northern Ireland. The consent mechanisms will only be invoked in the event that the last tether that remains between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is severed.

“Effectively what the ruling said was that the appellants – that's us – are right in all their views about the effects of the Protocol but it actually doesn't matter because the Protocol is legal anyway.

“Yes it (the Appeal Court decision) is a setback because, obliviously, it would have been nice to have had a ruling in our favour, but they have confirmed our worst fears on every subject. It's fine for those people who support the Protocol and see if there's a step towards a reunified Ireland – not to mention looking at the ruling and saying 'these guys lost'.

“So the next step for us is the Supreme Court. We're going to have to debate it out again and I think we'll get a much better hearing in the Supreme Court.

“I think it's very difficult in Northern Ireland, because it's a very charged political atmosphere. But I think that in the Supreme Court, with any luck, we'll get judges who are less charged with the political situation.”

Many would argue back that the only way that the North's current constitutional position in relation to the United Kingdom could be change would be a border poll for a united Ireland itself to be held.

However, Habib states that the mechanism of a border poll was ridden roughshod by both Westminster and the EU in order to impose the Protocol upon the North.

He continued: “At what point do you reach 'has the constitutional set-up of Northern Ireland changed so materially that it is no longer part of the United Kingdom'? It's not a philosophical question, which is how the judges would have us seen it, it's a matter of substance.

“The point is that you've now got Northern Ireland subject to a foreign court's jurisdiction – 800 regulations and laws being made outside the United Kingdom that affect Northern Ireland and over which Northern Ireland have no say.

“If ever there was a need for cross-community consent, I think that's it. There's two aspects to the Belfast Agreement. The actual border-poll and the concept of cross-community consent. In my view, both should have been – even before the Protocol was foisted upon Northern Ireland – given due consideration.

“But instead, Westminster and the EU rode roughshod over those provisions.

“Hindsight is a terrific thing but (former Prime Minister) Theresa May's backstop (the deal that was negotiated but rejected by the UK Parliament) was not Brexit. It kept the entire United Kingdom in the Single Market and the United Kingdom would have been subject to rules made outside our own jurisdiction.”

But surely those of a nationalist persuasion might argue back, in relation to Habib's claim that the North has 800 regulations and laws enforced upon them by a “foreign court” that the North has had a foreign body imposing law upon it since it was partitioned off from the rest of Ireland back in 1921?

“I don't accept that point of view,” replies Habib, “because constitutionally, Northern Ireland has been part of the union of Great Britain and Ireland, and then Great Britain and Northern Ireland, since 1800.

“Obviously, there are parts of Northern Ireland, and this is why it's such a hotly-debated topic, who don't want to be part of the United Kingdom – I get that. To the extent there's a mechanism in place to determine whether or not their wishes should be put into effect, that mechanism – a border poll – has not been invoked.”

However, the Protocol itself is not short of supporters – especially within the Derry Chamber of Commerce who, as reported in the Derry News last Christmas, surveyed its members – a study that revealed 80 per cent of Chamber members backed the Protocol ahead of a hard land border separating the North from the Republic.

Habib though insists the hard border scenario need not have come into play at all saying that the technology exists that would continue the smooth transition enjoyed by Derry and Donegal of goods and people flowing back and forth across the border.

He said: “I don't think the scenario (of checks on the border of passports, vehicles and paperwork) was ever on the table. There's a common travel area between Northern Ireland and the Republic and there was never any suggestion that the common travel area would cease to exist.

“In terms of movement of people, there was never any suggestion that that would be compromised. In terms of trade, the volume of trade across the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland border is worth about five billion euros a year – representing less than one per cent of the trade between the EU and the United Kingdom.

“The trade to and from Northern Ireland and Great Britain is around 25billion and therefore, five times as important and valuable in economic terms than the trade across the North/South border.

“The problem, in terms of trade to the extent that there was ever going to be a problem, is far worse as a result of the Irish Sea border than it is as the result of any customs checks taking place on the island of Ireland.

“But having said that, the British Government has always said, that it would never have instituted customs checks on its side of the border. If any entity was going to put up customs checks, it would have been the Republic of Ireland or the EU – depending on how you want to see it.

“The British Government, at the moment, are not instituting customs checks on goods coming over from Northern Ireland into Great Britain. What we've got is a completely open border with the EU in one direction.

“Lets assume that we accept the narrative that it is important to protect the Single Market. There was still no need for the EU to have had physical checks at the border for customs.

“We now live in a very sophiticated world where truck numberplates can be recognised, can be logged back and checked, declarations can be made at the port that they came from or whatever factory they left.

“That technology exists and works very well, for example, with the congestion charge in London. You know which vehicles have signed up to the congestion charge and you automatically get charged if you haven't paid up front. That technology exists and can be easily rolled out to the island of Ireland.

“So the notion that you would have these old-fashioned border checks manned by heavily-clad military personnel pointing guns at you through a window – which was the imagery conjured up by (Irish Tánaiste) Leo Varadkar – is just a false notion.”

At this point Habib is reminded of an article he wrote for a national British newspaper early in 2020 of how the North could make the Protocol work to its advantage and build a successful 'Tiger Economy'.

He insists that parts of that article have been taken out of context by many people and states that the scenario he had painted in it was dependent on Westminster playing its part – which he says they did not do.

“It seems to be the only article of mine that people have read when I've clearly written hundreds on the subject,” adds Habib. “In an interview I did with Sophie Ridge on Sky News in November 2019 – before this deal came into place – I said that this deal was worse than remain (staying in the EU).

“This was because Northern Ireland would be left bereft, amongst other things. Wind the clock forward to February 2020 – which was when I wrote the article that I did.

“What I said there was, look... this is a bloody heavy price that the Government has required of Northern Ireland in order to get Brexit over the line. But if the Government cuts taxes dramatically to compete with the corporation tax that is applicable south of the border and if the Government invests in Northern Ireland, then there may be a way to make this thing work.

“What I was trying to show was a path through which the Protocol could perhaps be made to work. But then I spoke to people in Government and they said they had no intention of cutting taxes in Northern Ireland, no intention of investing to the extent required and I knew there was no vision in the Government on how to neuter the sovereign-damaging implications of the Protocol.

“On March 7, 2020, I spoke at the Bruges Group and I said there is only one way that Northern Ireland could be kept within the union of the United Kingdom, and that is for the Government to repudiate the Protocol.

“I called out the deal and I fought against the deal all the way until it became law. I then provided a vision of how Northern Ireland could succeed under the new law. But when I knew that the Government wasn't even going to try to do that, I called for the repudiation of the Protocol – which was after I wrote that article.

“Every Remain supporter alights on that article but what they don't see is the detail of it. They don't see the context of that article of what I was saying before and after. It needs to be seen in the context of requiring Government policy at Westminster changing dramatically to neuter the Protocol's effects.”

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