Since the 2015 referendum, one of Brexit’s most contentious issues has been the border between Northern Ireland (N.I.) and the Republic of Ireland (RoI). The N.I. protocol has recently stoked a flurry of speeches from U.K. Brexit Secretary Lord Frost, calling for “significant change” with regards to its inefficacy. Hitherto, a border was drawn up in the Irish sea, with checks being carried out on goods entering N.I. from the U.K. to avoid a hard land border with the RoI. Not only did this cause disruption to supply chains and reductions in consumer choice in N.I. (the potential for missing out on the Great-British Banger), it now also risks undermining the stability of the region.
Lord Frost has described the issue as “the poison” of the E.U.-U.K. relationship, saying he wanted to use the “grain of the protocol” but “design it in a way that allows goods to flow freely and avoid undermining the balance [of] the Good Friday agreement.” Frost’s most recent speech also flippantly suggested the triggering of Article 16, whereby the E.U. or U.K. may rescind large parts of the protocol if its implementation engenders harmful consequences. European Commission Vice-President, Maros Sefcovic, however, said threats of this sort were “unhelpful” and that proposals from the E.U. were not on a “take it or leave it” basis but that both parties would need to compromise if progress was to be made. In N.I., the Democratic Unionist Party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, told Irish Tanaiste (the deputy head of the government of Ireland), Leo Varadkar, that “the protocol is harming our [N.I.’s] relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom” and remains deeply unpopular with Unionists who feel the sea-border pushes them away from the U.K.
The E.U. has previously proposed substantive alterations whereby the U.K. would follow Brussels’ rules on trade, allowing almost all checks to be lifted. The U.K., however, has rejected this approach as it impinges on Whitehall’s ability to make its own rules. Once again, the sovereignty mantra sung by Brexiteers rings through the air and, alas, seems to be placed higher on the U.K. government’s list of priorities than peace. On 13th October, the E.U. is due to provide a list of goods at low risk of entering the rest of the single market from N.I. that can pass through a type of ‘green corridor’ without the need for burdensome checks. This is a bold move from the E.U., seeking to mitigate potential risks of a non-resolution. Unfortunately, a game of one-up-manship has already begun, with Lord Frost now demanding that the European Court of Justice stop policing E.U. law at the border.
Diplomatic pettiness risks the resurgence of the turbulent Irish history pre-1998, when a disagreement between republican Catholics seeking an independent Ireland and unionist Protestants who desired close relations with the U.K. resulted in violence and the murder of ethnic groups and civilians at the hands of Irish republican and Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups. While both the U.K. and the E.U. are aware of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, and seemingly intend to honour it, a non-resolution to the N.I. protocol risks a potential re-emergence of such brutality and is thus a “risk to stability,” as U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan warned the BBC.
Recent claims regarding PM Boris Johnson’s long-held intention to dispense with N.I. protocol by his vitriolic former aide, Dominic Cummings, have further disgruntled already concerned Irish ministers and E.U. peace-seekers. What has forever been postponed as a “foreseeable” problem, is now very much present and must be tackled diplomatically in order to maintain stability for the citizens of N.I.
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