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David Phinnemore examines the latest polling on voter attitudes in Northern Ireland, and what it means for the importance of stakeholder engagement with the working of post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Since early 2021, the Post-Brexit Governance NI Project at Queen’s University Belfast has been tracking voter attitudes in Northern Ireland (NI) towards the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. For almost all questions asked, there are clear differences of opinion according to respondents’ constitutional position. Unionists tend to be sceptical of or hostile towards the Protocol; nationalists and neutrals are almost overwhelmingly accepting or positive. A similar pattern can be seen in attitudes towards the Windsor framework, albeit with a slight warming of attitudes among ‘slight’ unionists.

There are occasionally, however, statements/questions on which majorities of unionists, nationalists and neutrals agree. These generally relate to voices from Northern Ireland being heard on the Protocol. In March 2021 and in June 2021, 73% of respondents overall were either ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about Northern Ireland’s voice being heard. When asked in March 2021 whether the UK Government was being responsive to the views of people in Northern Ireland, only 10% of respondents agreed; 75% disagreed. The European Union (EU) fared only marginally better: 10% agreed it was being responsive; 50% disagreed.

Such concerns have persisted and are reflected in the levels of trust that voters have in the UK Government especially to manage the interests of Northern Ireland in the implementation of the Protocol. Across eight polls, trust in the UK Government has averaged only 5%; the highest level was in June 2021 when 6% of respondents overall and 16% of respondents identifying as ‘strongly unionist’ trusted it. On average, 85% of voters in Northern Ireland do not trust the UK Government to look after their interests on the Protocol.

They are more evenly split, however, when it comes to the EU/European Commission. The average levels of trust and distrust are 45% and 44% respectively. Within these figures are stark differences: more than four fifths of nationalists and a majority of neutrals trust the EU/European Commission; ‘strongly unionist’ respondents overwhelmingly express distrust, as do two thirds of ‘slightly unionist’ respondents.

The only actors in Northern Ireland that are trusted by a majority of NI voters are business representatives – average of 56% across the polling; and the average level of distrust is relatively low (18%). Only ‘strongly unionist’ respondents distrust NI business representatives more than they trust them.

These findings very much reflect unionist vs nationalist/neutral divisions over the Protocol and the Windsor Framework. However, there are issues on which there is majority support among unionists, nationalists and neutrals. For the most part, these relate to how views from Northern Ireland might be heard on implementation.

In February 2022, 78% of respondents agreed that there should be formalised structures for the UK-EU bodies managing the Protocol – i.e. the Joint Committee, the Specialised Committee and the Joint Consultative Working Group (JCWG) – to hear directly from NI business and civil society organizations on its implementation. In February 2023, 73% of respondents agreed that the UK and EU should commit to regular consultation with NI stakeholders and political representatives on the matter. Following the adoption the Windsor Framework, our June 2023 poll showed 71% of respondents supported increased UK and EU engagement with NI stakeholders over implementation; only 14% disagreed. Significantly a majority of nationalist, neutral and both ‘strongly’ and ‘slightly’ unionist respondents were supportive.

Such support for stakeholder engagement – set alongside the ‘valuable insights’ that the UK Government and the European Commission noted they have gained from informal and ad hoc engagement with stakeholders since the Protocol entered into force – helps explain commitments made in the Windsor Framework. Here, the UK Government and the European Commission agreed to ‘ensure regular engagement with Northern Ireland stakeholders at each level of the Withdrawal Agreement’s structures, including with the co-chairs of the Joint Committee’. The Joint Committee subsequently adopted a Recommendation that relevant meetings of the Specialized Committee and of the JCWG and its five sub-groups could include representatives from businesses and civic society stakeholders.

The European Commission also announced commitments for its own ‘enhanced engagement’ with NI stakeholders. This includes: an annual presentation of upcoming policy initiatives and legislative proposals; specific information sessions and workshops on new initiatives; and public consultations. The package of commitments is unprecedented in the EU’s external relations and indeed elements exceed what the European Commission offers regional stakeholders in member states.

Such engagement on the implementation of the Protocol/Windsor Framework is important. It provides regular, formal opportunities for NI voices to be heard by the joint EU-UK bodies and the European Commission. Whether it will be complemented with regular, formal opportunities for engagement with the UK Government remains to be seen. The planned engagement involves Northern Ireland’s most trusted actors on the Protocol/Windsor Framework: business representatives. And unlike the Stormont Brakes, the engagement is not conditional on the NI Assembly being restored and operating. The planned engagement also creates opportunities for NI voices to be heard early in changes to EU law applicable under Protocol/Windsor Framework and for technical discussions to be informed by those in Northern Ireland most directly affected.

Assuming the engagement helps identify and address actual and potential problems in the operation of the Protocol/Windsor Framework, it should also reduce the likelihood of a Stormont Brake needing to be pulled. With NI voters split on whether the Stormont Brakes provide appropriate means for MLAs to influence changes to EU law applicable under the Protocol/Windsor Framework (42% agree and 41% disagree), effective use of stakeholder engagement offers opportunities to show that NI interests can influence relevant decisions.

This of course assumes that the mechanisms and processes to which the UK Government and the European Commission have committed are not only put in place, but function and deliver. And here there are various as yet unanswered questions about how and when stakeholders will engage with the Joint Committee, the Specialised Committee, the JCWG and its sub-groups, and how stakeholders will be informed of relevant legislative developments to allow for timely and informed inputs. There are also questions about which stakeholders will be involved and whether and how they can be suitably resourced to ensure effective engagement.

Moreover, if meaningful opportunities are to exist for Northern Ireland to be heard on the operation and implementation of the Protocol/Windsor Framework, the mechanisms for engagement need to work such that concerns are heard and, where possible, addressed. The engagement also needs to be seen to work if it is to help reduce some of the contestation around the post-Brexit arrangements that have been agreed for Northern Ireland. That requires a degree of transparency about both process and outcomes.

By David Phinnemore, Professor of European Politics at the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast.

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