The UK and EU must be honest about the consequences of Brexit in Northern Ireland
An anti-Brexit sign near the entrance to Larne Port, Northern Ireland, 3 February 2021 | PA Images
With the delicate Northern Ireland Protocol facing more than just “teething problems”, all parties must take responsibility for their part in negotiating and now upholding it
Returning triumphantly from the EU in October 2019, Boris Johnson declared at an emergency Saturday sitting of the House of Commons that his Brexit agreement was a “great deal” that recognised the sensitive nature of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and preserved the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
But little more than one month after the end of the Brexit transition period, emergency meetings are being held after both the European Commission and the UK government have threatened to trigger a clause which allows them to override the agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol if it is going to cause serious "economic, societal or environmental difficulties".
The Protocol was four years in the making and is structured delicately. It has a dual purpose: to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland; and to protect the integrity of the EU’s single market.
In order to satisfy both these aims, there are now border checks on goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland: a reality that is bitterly opposed by the Unionists. As a result of recent tensions, the Democratic Unionist Party have called for the removal of the Protocol from the Withdrawal Agreement and published a five point plan, calling for all supporters of the union to oppose its implementation. A petition calling for unfettered GB-NI trade has now accumulated over 100,000 signatures, meaning that it will be debated in Westminster.
The recent change in the White House means the US administration will not look favourably on a government who threaten to undermine international agreements and the Good Friday Agreement
However, noticeably absent from the DUPs action plan is any proposal for a workable alternative to the Protocol.
The DUP supported the UK’s mission to leave the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union and are now waking to the uncomfortable reality of this. As their poll rating continue to fall, they have been forced to take an approach which is hardline but unrealistic.
The UK government will not abandon the Protocol they negotiated. They will be acutely aware that the recent change in the White House means the US administration will not look favourably on a government who threaten to undermine international agreements and the Good Friday Agreement.
However, Boris Johnson must be clearer with Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the DUP, on this. In the latest PMQs he told MPs he would consider invoking the Article 16 mechanism if there was no agreement with the EU to remove the Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade barriers. This fueled unionist hopes, despite Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove issuing a joint statement with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič reiterating their full commitment to the implementation of the Protocol.
The Brexit agreement gives the Northern Ireland assembly the chance to vote on whether to continue the Protocol in four years. Until then, the least disruptive option is for the EU and the UK to acknowledge the consequences of their Brexit deal on Northern Ireland and work harder within the framework of the agreement to help businesses and communities adapt to the new normal.
For the EU, that means devoting as much care and attention to protecting the Northern Ireland peace process as it did during the Brexit negotiations, and ensuring that checks are undertaken in a way that avoids disruption to everyday life as much as possible. Proposals for a suspension of checks on goods where Northern Ireland is the final destination should be given due consideration, and more care must be taken to ensure the governance structures are used exhaustively before emergency measures are invoked.
For the UK government, it means being consistent and clear on the fact that they chose to prioritise leaving the EU’s customs union and single market over Britain’s economic links to Northern Ireland.
Laura Hutchinson is Dods Head of UK Business and Political Intelligence