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Brexit and Northern Ireland, a challenging deal

The Northern Ireland protocol should have been officially endorsed by March 31st, but the UK’s procrastination and the sea border growing resentment are shedding light on the instability of the area.

The context

It was 2016 when the Brexit referendum invoked by David Cameron openly expressed the will of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. But if you were to look at the results locally, you would find something rather interesting: the Northern Irish (as well as the Scots) in fact voted to stay. This, however, should come as no surprise to all those people who have studied the recent Irish history, in particular the 30 year-long nationalistic and ethnic-based conflicts called “The Troubles” which harshly hit the island, leaving more than 3500 victims in their wake.

The people of Northern Ireland knew that parting ways once again with the Republic of Ireland would almost certainly mean creating new attrition at the border and hampering the free movement of people and goods between the two countries, taking away what had been, in the 90s, the catalyst and the foundation for a peaceful coexistence after years of conflict.

Unfortunately, the Northern Irish represent only 2.8 percent of the population of the UK, so the aggregate result of the referendum ended in a narrow victory for Leave. Four years of negotiations between the EU and the UK followed.

The Irish Protocol

Such lengthy negotiations were partly due to the difficulty in reaching an agreement between the EU, the UK and Ireland. It was obvious that, if the UK was to leave the Schengen area (Theresa May, the former Prime Minister of the UK, had insisted on the UK leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union), a border would have to be established either inside the Irish island or between Great Britain and the whole of Ireland. This negotiation step, named the Brexit trilemma, came out as the most delicate aspect of the UK-EU deal, as its outcome touched not only economic aspects but also very fragile geopolitical equilibria.

The first draft, named the Irish backstop, was finalized by the May government in 2018. It consisted in a protocol which insisted on keeping the Ulster region and the UK within a common custom territory with mainland Europe, so as to avoid a hard border in Ireland and favour an Irish single market. The backstop had the aspiration of being a temporary agreement, with the hope of making way to a more stable and accommodating agreement between the UK and the EU in the future. This deal received the support of the Irish Nationalist parties, but it faced strong criticism from the Unionists, who opposed any kind of formal step towards the isolation of Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

As the spectre of new internal clashes haunted the island, it became clear in London that an Irish border was to be avoided. Despite this fact, Westminster rejected the Withdrawal Agreement and thus put an end to May’s Protocol.

The Northern Ireland Protocol

Let’s fast forward to the end of 2019, when Boris Johnson, proposed a new protocol, called the Northern Ireland Protocol. The new deal found support from the Northern Irish cabinet, in Stormont castle, and consisted in establishing a border in Ireland, since the UK as a whole would be leaving the Single Market. But by having Ulster adopt all the laws and regulations of the Single Market, that border would only have a formal connotation, leaving a de facto sea border between the island and Great Britain and only a de jure border between the two Irish states.

The deal divided the island into supporters (mainly Irish Nationalists) and opponents (Unionists) of the deal. On the one hand, the Ulster region would freely continue to trade goods and electricity (they have an energy surplus that can be exported) with Ireland and the rest of Europe, preserving commercial relationships with the biggest exporter and importer of goods, namely the Republic of Ireland. Moreover, it would discourage any limitation to the free movement of people in Ireland.

On the other hand, it raised concerns and discontent within the Protestant Loyalist population, who felt closer to the Kingdom and saw the deal as a breach of the Good Friday Agreement negotiated over 20 years before, at the end of the Troubles.

Despite the discontent, the protocol was approved jointly by the UK and the EU and inserted in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which was finally approved in 2020, the day before Christmas.

The reactions

It seemed to be all over for the Loyalists, who had seen every chance of keeping a close relationship with Britain slip away all at once. But as the 3-month grace period came to an end on March 31st, Britain made a move to postpone the date.

This move was deemed necessary by Downing Street to ease off the bottlenecks that are still causing long lines of trucks bound for Ireland at the sea border. As supermarket shelves emptied and discontent increased, the Northern Irish happily received the news and supported Johnson’s decision. The European Union, on the contrary, denounced Britain for violating international law and breaching the protocol recently signed. As relationships between the two are reaching an all-time low, due also to the AstraZeneca dispute, some fear that Britain could soon be brought to the European Court of Justice .

Are the Loyalists going to sit back?

Some try to justify Johnson’s decision of extending the grace period by saying that Britain’s actions are a way to express solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland and to calm the waters. But is it necessary to keep things under control in the country? By the looks of it, it might be.

In 1998 Ireland and the United Kingdom closed a historical deal, the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast agreement). Among other things, like recognizing the will of the people to remain in the bloc, de facto consolidating the independence of Belfast from Dublin, this milestone allowed the demilitarization of Northern Island, with many paramilitary groups decommissioning their weapons. But discontent is growing among those who supported the peace deal, especially those who fought for independence and do not approve of the protocol. It is palpable in the street that people are mobilizing, as graffiti and stickers advocating a new military conflict are spreading in Belfast.

In a recent interview, David Campbell, representing the Loyalist military groups, has been very critical of the protocol, calling it a one-sided deal which disregards the Belfast agreement. In the meantime, some Loyalists groups, who had not been a party to the peace deal but had endorsed it at the time, have just withdrawn their support of the peace deal. Pressure is coming from young Unionist activists to spread violence around the country.

These warnings of violence have become increasingly frequent and are a threat for the peaceful coexistence of the people of Northern Ireland.

Trying to predict the strategy of the numerous actors involved in this dispute is almost impossible, but there are a number of tools in their hands.

A safeguard clause, namely Article 16 of the Protocol, which allows the two parties to take action in case some negative effects to the deal arise, can be used as a coercion tool by the UK and EU in the event of future disputes. Both have threatened to invoke the safeguard clause on a number of occasions, highlighting their willingness to take action in case the relationship between the two were to deteriorate further.

The unilateral exit mechanism, moreover, would allow the Northern Irish assembly to exit the deal by casting a vote that takes place every four years. If the vote should result in a disapproval of the current agreement, then the UK and the EU would need to sit down and reach a new deal. This puts a lot of power in the hands of the Assembly, which has recently appointed a Unionist as Prime Minister.

Public opinion, in the end, holds the power to affect the decisions of the Assembly and if, as popular sentiment suggests, pressure were to build up as a result of the cumbersome custom practices and the delay of goods coming from the UK, we might expect some turnaround of the protocol in the future. Only time will tell whether the people of the “forgotten state” will be brave enough to raise their voice or not.


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