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The unique position of NI post the protocol: How the next generation wants to play the hand they’ve been dealt

“We’ve been looking for a sort of step up on the rest of Europe and the rest of the UK for so long. An economic advantage. Now we’ve finally got it and we’re refusing to use it.” The new generation of politicians and politicians-to-be are calling out members of the North Irish Assembly for standing still and bickering instead of seizing a potentially golden opportunity.

Chairperson of the Social Democratic Labour Party Youth Karl Duncan
According to Karl Duncan politicians in Northern Ireland need to look past differences and instead see things in common. Photo: Sandra Kaarsgaard

8/6-2021 by Simone Dreesen and Sandra Kaarsgaard

Those were words out of chairperson of the SDLP Youth Karl Duncan’s mouth, as he’s sitting in the Church Bastion on the Walls overlooking St. Columb’s Cathedral on a warm June morning. It’s been 6 months since the Protocol was instated, riots have taken place and so far there has been no real political decision-making on the matter.

“People elect politicians so they can govern. They don’t elect them to fight,” says Karl Duncan. “Let’s look past our differences, let’s get on with governance, and let’s provide opportunities for people.”

The 20-year-old chairperson is not alone in seeing the protocol along with the customs barrier as an opportunity for Northern Ireland (NI) to grow economically. Local business owner Pat Dunne thinks that the Irish Sea Border is a good idea at the moment.

“Long term there are problems with the protocol, but if they can be resolved then the fact that we can trade with the rest of Europe and with Britain is excellent,” says Pat Dunne who owns the Phoenix Bed and Breakfast. “I think people will look to set up business here and that Northern Ireland could be very prosperous in the next 10-20 years.”

Political conflict hindering progress

However, with heightened tensions in the country because of riots, propaganda, and history, sitting down to talk and compromise have not been a very common way of solving political problems.

“This likely wouldn’t be this difficult in any other country. But we find ourselves where we find ourselves and we’ve just got to move on and keep moving,” says Karl Duncan of SDLP Youth. “If we stand still for a moment then the opportunity is gone.”

The view of an opportunity is not completely out of sight for Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), where several members have expressed interest in accepting and playing the hand NI has been dealt.

“We genuinely believe that the protocol and the sea border, provide enormous opportunities for us for trading with both the UK and the EU,” says MLA for the Alliance Party, Stewart Dickson. “It should be an incentive to UK manufacturers and businesses to come and set up business here.”

Former Mayor of Londonderry Brian Tierney
Mayor Brian Tierney is leaving office this June but is still very engaged in the future of Derry and Strabane. Photo: Sandra Kaarsgaard

This scenario is also what Karl Duncan is hoping will be a good step in the right direction, even if it won’t turn NI into an economic powerhouse overnight. The mayor of Derry and Strabane, Brian Tierney, will welcome businesses with open arms as the region has always been one of the most impoverished areas in the north.

“Setting up business in Derry and Strabane means you can trade any way you want with unfettered access to any market be it UK or EU. There’s nowhere else in Europe that has that,” says mayor Brian Tierney. “We’ve got skilled and talented people here who want the work. I would certainly welcome it, God knows jobs are badly needed and I’d be glad to see them come.”

In Derry in a bastion surrounded by the history of the walls and the obvious remnants of the Troubles in Bogside and the Fountain, Chairperson of SDLP Youth Karl Duncan wants to put the identity politics away and move forward from what ‘your grandfather did to mine’ decades ago:

“Let’s take the challenge and iron out any problems that there might be.”