Mark Devenport: The Centenary of NI is this Summer, do you see that as a cause for celebration?
PM: I think it’s obviously something that people are going to approach in different ways across Northern Ireland and indeed throughout the world, and there will be different perspectives, values that people ascribe to that anniversary. Myself, as a proud unionist, I think it’s a moment indeed to celebrate a wonderful part of the UK. Everything that it does and also the incredible potential of NI and that’s really where I think we should be looking. Yes, we should look back over the last 100yrs, some unhappy times no question. Some difficult times for many people in NI, people who felt excluded unfairly for a lot of the time and we need to address that, to understand that, to accept that but also to move on together and to think about what we can achieve together as a UK, with NI as part of that United Kingdom.
But it is of course still an unresolved argument as many people who think that the partition of NI was a tragedy and obviously there were a lot of tragic events that went alongside it
There certainly were and I’m sure that people will want to be reflecting on that but for my part whenever I go to NI and I just have a sense of a part of the UK that has such an amazing future ahead of it. People often argue about the benefits of the Union to all parts of the UK- and you hear people talking about furlough is fantastic and you know the might of the UK Treasury was able to send these huge strata fortresses of dosh all around the UK, it was the armed services of the UK and the NHS that were able to deploy the vaccine rollout in the way that we did across the whole of the country. All that is true, and I think the whole of the UK and NI benefits from it, but we need to look also at the ways in which our country benefits from NI’s contribution. From the get go, we needed those tests that were done in NI. I remember the days when for one reason or another there were difficulties in getting that testing done fast enough. We depended so much on testing done in NI. Think about, I was at Queen’s University not so long ago, talking to people who were looking at vaccinology and genome sequencing and all this is part of a new constellation of British scientific, academic research coming together to set out a new future for the country. A whole new area of science is opening up and NI is part of it. You talk about history, and of course you’re right to talk about history. Another British Prime Minister famously said ‘I feel the hand of history on my shoulder’, well I think it’s time to talk about the future. I feel the hand of science on my shoulder, I feel the hand of medicine on my shoulder, the hand of bioscience on my shoulder. These are the kinds of things that NI actually excels in and which offer a massive contribution to the UK and to the world. I was in Belfast and I went to this incredible, Axial3D, it’s this company that has actually pioneered, a NI company, they are the first people in the world to work out how to use an MRI or CT scanner. A 2D image. To produce a 3D image of your insides, or my insides, and absolutely unbelievable stuff. They can literally hand a surgeon a 3D model of the child’s heart which the surgeon then has to operate, so that he or she can get it right. It is just unbelievable, invented in NI, making use obviously of NHS facilities but a product that is going to be marketed around the world. That is the future I see.
You’re talking about the future; people will obviously remember 1921 as the year when the land frontier was created in Ireland. They might remember 2021 as the year when you signed off on an Irish Sea border separating GB and NI economically.
Well, I really hope they won’t look at it that way because I think actually that if we get this right and we manage the whole protocol back into the right place, I think that NI will be in a fantastic position. My view is very simple, if you look at page 291 of the deal, we agreed NI is part of the UK internal market. It is there in black and white and couldn’t be clearer. Of course, we are good neighbours, good friends of everybody in the European Union and particularly our friends in Dublin. We really don’t want to see a barrier across the island of Ireland and so we’ve taken certain steps under the protocol to make sure that the UK will look at stuff that’s coming into NI and in case it should go on and circulate in the Republic in such a way as to interfere with the EU single market stuff that they don’t want or that conflicts with their standards and so on, and we said we’d do that as good neighbours. But what we can’t have is that whole process being so kind of intense as to create any kind of barrier down the Irish Sea.
Well, there is a barrier down the Irish Sea as things stand
It was always intended to be a light touch measure to enable our European friends to protect their internal market, but also to protect our internal market. It’s that bit of it that really needs to be I think protected. Because under the Belfast/ Good Friday agreement obviously there is an East-West strand as well as a North-South strand and if you think about it and going back to what I’ve just been talking about (the big commercial opportunities for Northern Ireland) the trade is of course important North-South but overwhelmingly it’s East-West and that’s where the growth is, that’s where the markets, it’s very important we protect those markets. That’s why we took that steps that we did quite recently to ensure that there was freedom of movement and we no longer had an absurd situation whereby the Great British banger couldn’t get to Bangor or whatever. We had to sort out some of that stuff. I appreciate that we are going to have to keep going and this and sandpapering away, because there is no question that there has been disruption and we don’t want to see that disruption, but I want you to know and our viewers to know that the UK Government is absolutely determined to make sure that we protect UK internal market trade and protect free trade across the whole of the UK. GB-NI, NI-GB as well as doing what we can, what we reasonably should to protect the EU internal market.
You talk about managing the protocol, Unionists say that if the Union is to be kept together and they are to be treated in the same way as other parts of the Union then it has to be scrapped and no amount of management will do
I hear that and I’ve been very clear repeatedly with Arlene and Michelle and in the House of Commons that if we have to invoke Article 16 because we think that this thing isn’t working in the interest of the UK and isn’t working in the interests of NI then that’s what we’ll do but at the moment we’re pursuing the approach we are, and don’t forget it wasn’t the UK that involved Article 16 of the protocol. It was the EU at the end of January, and you will recall actually went straight ahead and put a barrier across the island of Ireland for the purposes of forbidding the export of vaccines would you believe it. So, we are upholding it and keeping going, we just think that the way it’s currently working, the way it’s being interpreted doesn’t for my money conform with the integrity of the, doesn’t completely conform with the integrity of the UK internal market. We made the changes that we have and will continue to make changes and improvements as necessary. I rule nothing out.
What would you say to those Unionists who’ve accused you of betrayal over this as they remember you going to the DUP conference and saying no sea border, and there has been a sea border albeit that you’ve delayed some of the harsher aspects of it?
What we’re doing is removing what I think of as the unnecessary protuberances and barriers that have grown up and we’re getting the barnacles off the thing and sandpapering it into shape but I want to be very clear with you if we can’t make enough progress and if it looks as though the EU is going to be very very dogmatic about it and we continue to have absurd situations where you can’t bring in rose bushes with British soil into NI, you can’t bring tractors with British soil adhering into their tyres into NI. You can’t bring sausages into NI. Then frankly we’ll have to take further steps and we will.
We’ll take what steps we need to do. What’s paramount for me is the integrity of our UK internal market and the economic integrity of the Union. And we have to uphold that because it’s there in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement because feelings that we all talk about are real and we’ve got to address it. But I think you can actually address it whilst maintaining freedom of movement, CTO, and all the rest of it North-South.
Something else that is there in the Belfast/ Good Friday agreement is the provision for a border poll. As Nationalists look at the centenary and say look NI won’t be in existence for that many more years. Whilst you are PM are you ruling out a border poll on your watch?
You’ve accurately described the constitutional position Mark but I don’t think the SoS is going to be in that position, not as far as I can see for a very long time to come. I would rather that we all thought collectively not about what we can do to split ourselves apart from each other but what we can do together and I look at NI and the future of NI and I think it is really potentially very bright. If we knock this thing into shape. We end these ludicrous barriers permanently, we’ve got rid of them temporarily, but we get rid of them permanently East-West, you continue to have free trade North-South, then you’re in a world where NI is actually able to benefit massively from things we want to do in the UK whilst not losing access to the whole of the Irish Market as well. Freeports, a fantastic opportunity for NI, look at what we are doing on the whole green industrial revolution, the 10 point plan the Government set out. Hydrogen is a big part of that. You’ve got Rightbus in Ballymena now switching to Hydrogen, it could be a very important part of our Hydrogen revolution in the UK. Shipbuilding, this government’s got a massive shipbuilding agenda. Why shouldn’t Harland and Wolff benefit from that. At the moment it’s good to see some stuff happening at Harland and Wolff, to see some cruise ships being refitted and the good stuff happening now on those docks, but I want to see ships built in NI. I think the future is very very exciting and interesting. The centenary is obviously a moment to reflect on what has been a troubled past. There is no question my childhood and perhaps even your childhood was very much dominated by that conflict, those struggles and those bitter memories, but I think this is obviously a time for us to think about it but then for us to all move on and look at the future. I do think it is full full full of new opportunities and new potential with NI ready and playing, I won’t say it’s got the best of both worlds, but it’s got a real opportunity.
The loyalist paramilitaries have made some pretty strident noises about the NI protocol. You talk there about The Troubles and what you remember from your childhood. What are your security advisors telling you now? Are you convinced that things will stay peaceful and democratic whatever happens in the future?
We very much hope so, and you’re right in what you’ve just said but we don’t see a change in the security situation, on the contrary I think that most young people growing up in NI have, yes of course people need to look back and think about things. For young people growing up in NI, I met quite a few of them the other day at the university, they see the world as their oyster and they’re right, they’ve got this new Turing scheme that we’re going to be championing and spending a lot of money on and I think people have a different perspective now. I know that people think this is all a bit farfetched but I also think that there is a case for pursuing the Union Connectivity Review that Peter Hendy did and just looking, I’ll put it no more strongly than that, looking at the physical connections between GB-NI and particularly between Scotland and NI and is there anything we can do there. And a couple of world leaders are going to be scoping that Professor Douglas Oakervee, and Professor Gordon Masterton. I’m not going to say that it’s going to be easy or that this is an absolute slam dunk but look what they’ve doing in Norway, look at what the Chinese have done. Why don’t we at least look at this idea because it does seem to me that after a pretty difficult and contested century. The idea of building links and connections between us is not a bad thing
At the cost of £30bn?
That’s for them to look at.
You’re convinced there’s possibility there? This has been talked about since the 1860s?
Well, the Channel Tunnel don’t forget was talked about for at least two centuries and it happened. So it may be that we’re ahead of our time, but no time like the present.