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Tuesday, 16 August 2022
Brexit is to blame for Northern Ireland uncertainty
Ian Black

Boris Johnson, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, won the December 2019 general election by a large majority largely thanks to his catchy, if superficial, slogan “Get Brexit Done.” Pre-Covid and the national and global economic disaster triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems ages ago.

 Now Boris is facing a new crisis of his own making, over maintaining the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which ended three decades of tension – and terrorism -  between extremist Republicans and Unionists. The protocol was designed to avoid the return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland as a result of Brexit. But it has in effect created a border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, meaning goods exported from Britain are subject to customs checks.

 The UK government claims it has to act to resolve political instability in Northern Ireland, where Unionists have demolished the devolved government over the protocol. It also cites the red tape that the arrangement imposes on firms as a reason for dismantling it.

 Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) gained a majority of seats in the local elections in May. That was also a symbolic breakthrough for Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland’s assembly election. “A party that does not want Northern Ireland to exist and refuses to even use the term Northern Ireland will become its biggest,” one expert said at the time. “It will not trigger a border poll, but it is an incremental step on the long road to Irish unity.”

 Although a majority of assembly members in the province want to keep the protocol, the political infrastructure of Northern Ireland requires nationalists and unionists to co-operate.

 The European Union is now poised to launch legal action against the UK after ministers controversially claimed an emergency loophole allowed them to scrap post-Brexit checks and standards in Northern Ireland. Brussels described the UK plan as “illegal”, “extremely damaging” and casting a shadow over British-EU relations. In a surprising admission, Johnson’s government accepted that its new Northern Ireland protocol bill would mean it did not meet its obligations under international law.

 The Tories justified the move under a principle called the “doctrine of necessity”, claiming the protocol was causing “peril” to society and politics in Northern Ireland because of the threat to the Good Friday agreement. Johnson insisted the changes in the legislation were “relatively trivial” measures designed to ease trade disruption between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, as the bill was published last Monday.

 Under the new legislation, which is likely to face considerable opposition in parliament, the government would scrap checks for firms selling goods from Great Britain destined for Northern Ireland rather than the EU. Instead, the government envisages the creation of a “green lane” of fewer checks for those selling goods heading for Northern Ireland and a “red lane” with existing checks for goods destined for EU countries. The Guardian newspaper described that approach as “a fantasy wish list for the Eurosceptic hard right” and an “exercise in high-profile Brussels-bashing.”

 There are many unknowns to this strategy. Chief amongst them is the future of the Stormont assembly. The Democratic Unionist Party is pushing for the legislation to be passed, before it will consider returning to power sharing. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, welcomed the Northern Ireland protocol bill last week, but said the party would revive the Stormont assembly only if the bill progressed at Westminster.

 “Parliament can either choose to go forward with the [Good Friday] agreement and the political institutions and stability in Northern Ireland, or the protocol, but it can’t have both,” Donaldson told the BBC.

 This is another toxic and divisive issue: the European Commission stance over the Northern Ireland protocol led a leading unionist campaigner to compare the "subjugation" of his corner of the UK to Russia's attempt to seize Ukraine by force. While Unionist Voice editor Jamie Bryson acknowledged Vladimir Putin's brutal use of military force in Ukraine, he argued that Northern Ireland was facing an equally serious erosion of sovereignty by Brussels, be it through bureaucratic means and with the "complicity" of the British Parliament. European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the UK's move had "no legal or political justification".

 The dispute could ultimately lead to a trade war, with tariffs or even the suspension of the entire Brexit deal between the UK and the EU. The Centre for European Reform estimates that the British economy was 5.2% smaller in the final quarter of 2021 than it would have been without Brexit—and that’s when the relationship was still working. By introducing the bill, Johnson’s government has exacerbated political uncertainty, worsened Britain’s international reputation, and increased the risk that more businesses will hold back on investment.

 This is the last thing Britain needs in these deeply uncertain times, with the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, having pledged last week to hold a new referendum on Scottish independence. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Brexit means – in the big picture - disuniting the United Kingdom.