Devolved government in Northern Ireland may be a shambles. The Democratic Unionist Party may be locked into self-destruct mode, with creationist Edwin Poots forced out of the leadership after just 21 days. But not all news out of the province is bad. 

According to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, the value of goods sold south of the border by Northern Irish firms in the first four months of this year rose by 60 per cent compared with the same period in 2020, to a value of £900 million. At the same time, the value of exports from the Republic to the North went up 40 per cent, to £835 million.  

Unionists of all shades object to the Northern Ireland Protocol on the basis that it imposes a customs barrier between mainland UK and Ulster. Both the DUP and the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party have called for it to be abolished in its entirety.  

But business, it would seem, thinks differently. 

Under the terms of the protocol, NI is simultaneously part of the UK customs territory and the EU Single Market. Companies throughout Ireland can sell across the border without customs checks or tariffs. Just as important, Northern Ireland businesses are free to trade with the other 26 nations of the EU unimpeded by the checks and controls affecting movements between Dover and Calais.  

Very little has been said or written about the impact of this hard-won dispensation. But the evidence is that Ulster businesses are quietly taking advantage of the freedom it confers and looking to a future in which they are, uniquely, British, Irish and European.  

Alan Armstrong, CEO of the Almac pharmaceuticals group, based in County Armagh and employing more than 6,000 people in Ireland, Europe, Asia and the US, has welcomed confirmation this month from the European Medicines Agency and the British Government that, post-Brexit, Northern Ireland willremain in regulatory alignment with the EU. 

The joint announcement, said Armstrong, “ensures that our current and future clients can continue to receive an unfettered solution with exclusive access to both the EU and UK marketplace. Crucially, our unique location in Northern Ireland ensures we can provide uninterrupted service provision now, and into the future, maintaining our position as a global leader in the life sciences sector.”  

Moy Park, one of the biggest poultry producers in the world, with some 25 per cent of the market in Western Europe, had threatened after the EU referendum to move its headquarters from Craigavon, in County Armagh, to the Republic in order to secure its place in the Single Market. However, the protocol – once lauded by the DUP as a workable solution to an existential question – took the sting out of Brexit for business, allowing Moy Park not only to maintain its HQ in Craigavon but to increase sales in both the British and European markets.The same has been true for a number of Northern Ireland firms. Whatever about the politics, the bottom line has turned out to be the bottom line.  

Under the terms of the protocol, goods – soon to include fresh meats – are subject to inspection to ensure that they are destined only for Northern Ireland and cannot bleed into the Single Market by way of the open border with the Republic. Unionists in general, and hardline Loyalists in particular, see this as the thin end of a wedge that will eventually tip them into a United Ireland. Unionists, however, are no longer the dominant force north of the border, where Nationalists are moving into the ascendancy alongside a growing minority of unaligned voters whose primary interest lies in what confers most advantage to them and their families.  

One measure of the pragmatic directional shift is the increased use by northern companies of direct ferries to the Continent, by-passing the so-called UK landbridge. A lorry from Belfast or Londonderry, embarking from Dublin, Rosslare or Cork, can disembark from Cherbourg, Roscoff, Dunkirk, Santander and be on their way in a matter of minutes, avoiding the paperwork and red tape that affects trucks arriving from England. The fact that nearly all drivers choosing the direct route hold Irish and EU passports – another Northern-Ireland-only advantage, conferred this time by the 1998 Good Friday accords – only adds to the simplicity of the operation.  

There are now up to 20 sailings a week from Ireland to France – more than twice the number prior to Brexit. By contrast, the only ferry operating between NI and England is the twice-daily service from Belfast to Birkenhead, which leaves drivers facing a 315-mile journey down the crowded M6, M25 and M20 motorways to Dover, followed by the gauntlet either side of the Channel of UK/EU border controls.  

An official of the Irish statistics office told the Irish Times this week that a number of British-based traders looked to have established new bases in NI, making it easier for them to export goods to the Continent. If this, as seems inevitable, leads to an increase in employment, the DUP could find that the protocol has as many friends as enemies within the unionist community.  

Edwin Poots, elected leader of the DUP just last month following a coup that removed Arlene Foster as First Minister, was among those calling for the protocol to be dismantled root and branch. As far as he and Paul Girvan, his choice to replace Foster, were concerned, Ulster had to be treated “exactly the same” as the rest of the UK even if it meant giving up a strategic advantage that the SNP in Scotland would give their eye teeth for. 

Unfortunately for Poots, no sooner had he been hired than he was handed his P45 by a party that seems to have lost interest in government in favour of the purity of its message. With the proposed Irish Language Act, underpinned by Westminster, the new touchstone for unionist resentment, it could be that the protocol – to the profound relief of the Johnson Government and the EU – will start to move off the front pages and into the business sections of Northern Ireland’s media.  

As ever, the loyalist marching season, due to begin later this month, will be the big test. In the event of widespread violence, anything could happen. There is also, due to the fallout from the defenestration of Poots and Girvan, a strong possibility that the the Stormont executive will fall, leading to fresh elections and a further round of intense political uncertainty. In that event, the protocol will only be one among many bones of contention.   

As for the sausage war, while it may or may not remain difficult for English sausage-makers to sell their products in Northern Ireland beyond the end of this month, there is unlikely to be a shortage of bangers in the shops. Sausages, along with bacon, are big business in Northern Ireland, with companies like Doherty’s, Cookstown and Denny among the biggest players in the Irish and UK markets. Sales of Irish and Northern Irish sausages, and other foodstuffs, are rising, not falling, meaning that shelves throughout Ulster are certain to be well-stocked.  

Loyalist bands can blast out The Sash and Derry’s Walls as loudly as they like, but in the end nothing talks louder than money.