The United Kingdom and the European Union traded barbs and threats this week as Brexit disagreements grow over the state of the Irish border. Meanwhile the question brings anxiety and a fear of returning violence in Northern Ireland. The UK Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, David Frost, has called on the EU to renegotiate the Brexit deal, a deal he personally negotiated and signed, regarding the “Northern Irish Protocol,” which creates an informal border between the markets of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the Irish Sea. Frost argues that these divisions undermine peace and UK integrity, and on October 4th threatened to invoke Article 16, a clause in the agreement which allows any party caused unforeseen harm by the agreement to nullify the entire Protocol. But the EU has been resistant to negotiate, with EU European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič stating during a visit to Ireland he was “ready to explore all the flexibilities” to find a solution, but that scrapping the Protocol in its entirety would be “unhelpful” and a non-starter for the EU.
The growing disagreements have brought attention from within and beyond Northern Ireland. Last month, Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson portended a potential collapse of Northern Irish governance if the protocol isn’t amended, according to the Associated Press. But US national security advisor Jake Sullivan warned the UK that suspending the Protocol would be a “serious risk to stability,” he told the BBC, with a return to a hard Irish border being “of serious concern to the US.” He called on the UK and the EU to work together “in a constructive way to find a deal and a way forward.”
Whether Brexit is right is ultimately neither here nor there, but its implementation has been haphazard at best, willfully ignorant at worst. The Irish border was always a foreseeable problem, but politicians have been burying their heads with regards to it until the last minute, and are now hiding behind rhetoric to disguise their inaction. The UK ministers in particular, many of whom agreed to the letter of the existing Protocol, have been especially inflammatory. Given the way Frost has waved around Article 16 like a weapon – before negotiations have even begun – without appreciating the potential consequences of scrapping the Protocol speaks to how rhetoric and grandstanding are driving the tensions across the English Channel as well as across the Irish border.
But while the EU and UK measure dictates and bluster over politics, the Irish border at the center of this controversy is creating increasing unease over a return to a conflict many hoped was over.
The island of Ireland is split between the Republic of Ireland in the south and the UK controlled Northern Ireland. Throughout the 20th century, primarily Catholic Northern Irish nationalists fought to see the British enclave united with the Republic, while predominately Protestant British-descended Northern Irish unionists fought to remain with the UK. This bitter, ugly conflict, known as the Troubles, spanned decades and was defined by targeted ethnic violence and severe civilian collateral damage from car bombings, terrorist attacks, and army shootouts. The fighting only subsided after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, of which one of the primary stipulations was an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This bloody history and the threat of its return hangs over the Brexit squabbling. Unionists will not tolerate being separated from what they see as the rest of their country, but returning to a restricted Irish border risks reigniting the ethnic conflict between nationalists and unionists anyways. Already this year in April, riots burned across Northern Irish cities as unionists afraid the Irish Sea border will create a divide between them and the UK expressed their anger.
Despite the rhetoric, both the UK and EU are cognizant of the stability at stake here, and on October 7th, Šefčovič promised “very far reaching” proposals to amend the problem, making clear that the EU’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and an open Irish Border are “absolute” and a “prerequisite” for negotiations. Hopefully, if all parties can respect these agreements, this conflict can remain purely political.
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