Northern Ireland Caught In Crosshairs Of Latest Brexit Battle

Brussels is losing patience with London over Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland, said European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic after meeting with his British counterpart Lord David Frost on Wednesday, 10 June. A key part of the Brexit deal that took effect in January requires inspections for various goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland, which remains part of Europe’s trading bloc despite belonging to the United Kingdom. Britain has failed to honour the deal, however, unilaterally extending the grace period for implementing border checks and further souring relations with the EU in the process. Its decision to delay the inspections⁠ stems from fears that any disruption will send tremors through Northern Ireland’s already unstable economic and political landscape. But if the EU follows through on its latest threats to pursue retaliatory measures, Northern Ireland will bear the brunt of it. 

“If the U.K. were to take further unilateral action in the coming weeks, the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly, and resolutely,” said Mr. Sefcovic after he meets with Lord Frost. When asked about what that response might be, Sefcovic said it could involve legal action, arbitration, or targeted tariffs. Yet, Britain has argued that the new paperwork and regulatory checks make the arrangement unsustainable. With the six-month grace period set to expire on 30 June, Lord Frost criticized the EU for its “legal purity” and called for greater pragmatism.       

This situation has put Northern Ireland in a difficult position. The country remains deeply divided between unionists who favour the remaining part of the U.K. and nationalists who desire a unified Ireland. Beginning in the 1960s, clashes between these groups caused decades of violence and thousands of deaths during a period later dubbed “the Troubles.” A cold peace was finally reached under the so-called Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However, old grievances were dredged up when Britain officially left the bloc in January 2020 and Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland became the only land division between the U.K. and EU. With “the Troubles” still a fresh memory, both London and Brussels expressed their eagerness to avoid reintroducing a hard border along this 310-mile stretch. 

To prevent outrage from nationalists, the Brexit deal specified that Northern Ireland would keep following EU rules so that it could stay in the single market⁠—and so that its Irish border would continue to exist only on paper. Ultimately, this merely traded one problem for another, drawing a de facto border down the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. instead. This enraged unionists, who feel betrayed by Britain’s decision to prioritize the Brexit deal over its political union with Northern Ireland, Reuters reports. Consequently, the fabric of Northern Ireland’s delicate 23-year peace is fraying at the edges.

Violence in Northern Ireland was rising steadily even before the Brexit deal took shape. Police figures from 2019 indicate that paramilitary-style punishments, shootings, and beatings have increased by 60 percent in the past four years. Familiar scenes of rioting, bus hijackings, and car bombings serve as stark reminders of the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland. The New York Times reports that it still suffers from high child poverty and unemployment rates. Additionally, years of successive budget cuts from London have choked funding for social services and youth programs, raising social inequality to the same levels that incited conflict in the 1960s. If supply chains from the rest of the U.K. are disrupted any further, this could mark the tipping point.

Britain’s concerns over Northern Ireland are well-founded. Nevertheless, it cannot hope to stabilize the region if it angers the EU by continuing to act unilaterally. London must cooperate with the EU for Northern Ireland’s sake. The EU, in turn, must refrain from retaliatory actions against Britain that may disrupt Northern Ireland’s economy further and must instead be open to emergency concessions. Until now, the headlines indicated London’s souring relations with Brussels since leaving the European Union. However, if the latest trade disputes cannot be resolved soon, Britain risks compromising its older political ties to Northern Ireland, with whom it shares a much bloodier history.

Caleb Loughrin