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, aims to do just that. Yet, it’s drawing bitter criticism from unionists who claim it undermines their British identity because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K. The arrangement is also under attack from companies who say it disrupts trade.

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 hope 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.

Why Brexit Is Still Fueling Irish Border Tension

3. 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 frontier.

4. 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. However, tensions truly ratcheted up in January when Northern Ireland was caught up in the EU’s vaccine crisis. The European Commission threatened in January to override parts of the protocol to ensure that jabs made in the EU didn’t move into mainland Britain using Northern Ireland as a back door without approval. The prospect -- however faint -- of controls returning to the Irish border sparked outrage, forcing the Commission to reverse course almost immediately. Yet the episode added to momentum behind the wider unionist campaign to undermine and abolish the protocol.

5. What’s fueling the tensions now?

On March 3, 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 David Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator who became minister responsible for relations with the EU, described the moves as “temporary technical steps.” The U.K. 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.

Why Brexit Is Still Fueling Irish Border Tension

6. What’s the long-term future for the protocol?

Northern Ireland will be given a say on the protocol in 2024. Though the precise details have yet to be set out, the region’s power-sharing assembly will vote on the accord. If a simple majority in the assembly 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.

7. Could Brexit hasten a united Ireland?

It’s unlikely anytime soon. Nearly a century after partition, a majority in Northern Ireland want 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.

The Reference Shelf:

  • How the first weeks of Brexit led to empty shelves in some Northern Ireland stores.
  • Some U.K. retailers halted sales to Northern Ireland amid trade disruption after Brexit.
  • A summary of the Northern Ireland protocol.
  • An Irish Times column by former Ulster Unionist Party Leader David Trimble calling for the Northern Ireland Protocol to be torn up.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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