Without trust and dialogue, Northern Ireland risks becoming a permanent casualty of Brexit
Public opinion in Northern Ireland on the Protocol is split down the middle, aggravating existing community tensions. Patience, dialogue, and most of all trust between the UK and EU is needed to find a solution.
Addressing the implications for Northern Ireland and Ireland of UK withdrawal from the EU has been the most fraught, technically complex and politically divisive element of the entire Brexit process. The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland that emerged from the Brexit negotiations has therefore been contentious from the start, and even more so since it came into force on 1 January 2021.
In recognition of this, the House of Lords has established a dedicated Committee on the Protocol, which has today published its first report. Our membership, drawn from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, has a wide range of expertise in Northern Ireland affairs. While some of us support the Protocol, others of us oppose it in principle. Yet we have unanimously agreed our report as demonstration of our mutual commitment to the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
The Committee’s report finds that there has been significant disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, creating a risk that British businesses will withdraw from the Northern Ireland market. Yet there are also opportunities, in terms of dual access to the UK and EU markets, North-South trade and foreign direct investment. These benefits will take time to bear fruit, and are dependent on political stability and certainty.
Brexit and the Protocol have once again brought borders and questions of identity to the fore
While the recent community unrest in Northern Ireland has many deep-seated causes, Brexit and the Protocol have once again brought borders and questions of identity to the fore. While many unionists and loyalists object to the Protocol being imposed without their consent, many nationalists and republicans point out that Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of its people. This is against the backdrop of a democratic deficit, whereby significant aspects of EU law apply to Northern Ireland without its prior consent. Public opinion in Northern Ireland on the Protocol is split down the middle, aggravating existing community tensions.
The search for solutions, of which the government’s new Command Paper published last week is the latest chapter, has been continually hampered by flaws in the UK and EU's approach: lack of clarity, transparency and readiness on the part of the UK; lack of balance, understanding and proportionality on the part of the EU.
These are exacerbated by a corrosive and mutual lack of trust: on the part of the EU, that the UK is seeking to undermine the Protocol and will not live up to its political and legal commitments; and on the part of the UK, that the EU will always prioritise the integrity of the Single Market over the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.
This has contributed to a serious deterioration in relations between London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels. Unless urgent steps are taken to correct this, Northern Ireland and its people risk becoming permanent casualties in the post-Brexit landscape.
The tensions over the Protocol currently seem insoluble. Yet that was also true of the political situation in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. But through a slow and painstaking process led by political leaders in Northern Ireland and successive governments in London and Dublin, the peace process took root and flourished. This process took time, patience, dialogue, and most of all trust. The same is true in addressing the problems that Brexit and the Protocol present for Northern Ireland.
There is therefore an urgent imperative for all sides to make concerted efforts to build trust by recommitting themselves to that process of dialogue, repairing the damage caused to relations across these islands during the past five years, in the interests, as the Protocol rightly acknowledges, of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Lord Jay of Ewelme is a crossbench peer and chair of the Lords Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Committee.
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