Why Brexit is still fueling irish border tension
Keeping the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland free of any visible checkpoints is a key plank of the Brexit accord between the European Union and U.K. An agreement, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, aimed to do just that. Yet its roundly drawn criticism and its implementation has been controversial.
Unionists claim it undermines their British identity because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K., while companies have complained it disrupts trade. The dispute has fostered suspicion and fueled a war of words between the U.K. and EU which threatens to undermine the wider trade and cooperation agreement between them. Meanwhile, other outstanding issues remain unresolved.
1. Why was Northern Ireland such a Brexit sticking point?
Following Brexit, the 310-mile (499-kilometer) frontier running from near Derry in the north to Dundalk on the east coast of Ireland became the EU's new land border with the U.K. Without special status, checks would have had to take place on the frontier because the U.K. has exited the customs union and single market. The concern was that delays could hamper the free movement of people and goods between the two parts of Ireland, which was partitioned a century ago, and customs posts could become targets for violence. The protocol was seen as an answer. By keeping the land border free of potentially provocative checkpoints, both sides hoped to prevent a return to the era of sectarian violence, which cost more than 3,000 lives between the late 1960s and the signature of a peace accord, the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998.
2. How does the protocol work?
The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's customs area and much of the single market. That means cargo coming from mainland Britain needs to be checked before or on entry to the region to ensure it meets the bloc's rules and standards. Essentially, the border has moved to the Irish Sea. The deal also allows Northern Irish exporters to have easy access to Europe's single market and Britain's internal market.
3. What does the U.K. want and what's the reaction been?
In July the U.K. called on the EU to substantially rewrite the protocol, which U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described as unsustainable. The U.K. wants the EU to agree to a standstill period on measures affecting Northern Ireland, including maintaining all grace periods for checks on trade. Ultimately the U.K. wants those checks on goods moving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the kingdom to be replaced by a trusted trader system and remove the EU institutions' role in enforcing the protocol, among other measures. Both the EU and Irish government have made clear they will be flexible within the confines of the protocol but won't renegotiate the agreement itself.
4. Why is it so controversial?
Most fundamentally, Northern Irish unionists say it's wrong that the province isn't treated in the same way as England, Scotland and Wales. On a more practical basis, Northern Irish importers say the system has created more paperwork, delays and costs when goods are brought into the region. Some British retailers interrupted sales into Northern Ireland while those issues were being resolved. During the Brexit negotiations the U.K. government explored alternative proposals for an invisible hi-tech land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with customs checks conducted at business premises some distance away from the frontier. None of those proposals were found to be workable in a way that was acceptable to both sides.
5. How has the U.K.-EU rift widened?
Strains emerged almost from the moment the protocol came into force, with images of empty food shelves flooding social media. They escalated in January when the European Commission threatened to override parts of the protocol to stop Covid-19 vaccines made in the EU moving into mainland Britain via Northern Ireland without approval. The prospect of controls returning to the Irish border sparked outrage and the Commission reversed course, yet the episode added to momentum behind the wider unionist campaign to undermine and abolish the protocol. Since then various issues have flared up, most publicly a row dubbed the "sausage wars" over checks on chilled meats moving from the rest of the U.K. into the region. The U.K. and EU agreed to postpone the changes for three months but still need to find a permanent plan for trade in the region. Another sector under threat is pharmaceuticals. More than 2,000 generic medicines made in Great Britain could be withdrawn from the Northern Irish market, with the British Generic Manufacturers Association, an industry trade body, saying different regulations in the province could make it too costly and complex to supply medicines.
6. What's fueling the tensions?
In March, the British government said it would waive customs paperwork on food entering Northern Ireland until October, beyond the April 1 deadline it had agreed with the EU. The government believes that supermarkets and traders aren't ready for the new rules and had previously asked for the deadline to be extended until 2023, but the bloc hasn't signed off on that proposal. Instead, the EU said it would take legal action against the U.K. for breaching the Brexit deal. The bloc has since pulled back from the legal route while the two sides try to resolve some of the protocol issues.
7. What's the long-term future for the protocol?
Northern Ireland will be given a say on the protocol in 2024. Though the details have yet to be set out, the region's power-sharing assembly will vote on the accord. If a simple majority backs the protocol, another vote will be held four years later. If the measure gains the support of both the nationalist and unionist groups, there won't be another vote for eight years. If the assembly scraps the protocol, the border question could well be back on the agenda. In the absence of an overall renegotiation, some additional agreements could ease some checks. The Irish government says a deal on sanitary and phytosanitary standards would remove the need for as much as 80% of checks.
8. Could Brexit hasten a united Ireland?
It's unlikely anytime soon as a majority in Northern Ireland wants to remain part of the U.K. Still, the fact that the possibility is being openly discussed again is testament to the forces unleashed by Brexit. Under a provision of the Good Friday Agreement, a so-called border poll on Irish unification could only take place if the U.K. government considers such a referendum would likely be passed. Some 44% of Northern Irish voters are against unification and 35% are in favor, according to a survey for the Irish Independent in May. That leaves a swathe of undecideds who could swing it either way.