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The protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland proved to be the trickiest element of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement to negotiate. The version that was finally agreed to by both sides sees the EU’s customs code and regulatory rules applying in Northern Ireland. In avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods on the island of Ireland, there are new frictions on the movement of goods within the United Kingdom. Implementing the protocol is a complex practical as well as political challenge. What it means in practice is largely dependent on the nature of the UK-EU relationship.
A customs ‘solution’
What Boris Johnson had negotiated in the Withdrawal Agreement was a ‘specific solution’ for Northern Ireland anticipated in the 2017 Joint Report. It was a compromise for the EU, which has to accept ‘cherry picking’ from its four freedoms of movement by a non-member region, with Northern Ireland having free movement of goods to/from the EU.
Although Johnson claimed there would be “minimum possible bureaucratic consequences at a few points of arrival into Northern Ireland”, what this customs ‘solution’ entailed was applying the Union Customs Code on all goods entering Northern Ireland from non-EU member-states, including Great Britain.
If the DUP was upset about the backstop, it was livid at this; but the party stood alone. Its friends in the Conservative party, including the European Research Group (ERG), were simply keen ‘to get Brexit done’, and so lent their support to what Johnson described as “the greatest single restoration of national sovereignty in Parliamentary history”.
A pragmatic border
Ultimately, the decision not to have a hard border for the movement of goods on the island of Ireland was a pragmatic more than a political one. Even though trade across the Irish Sea is worth considerably more than across the Irish border, managing a sea/air border with half a dozen entry/exit points and a natural transit time is more straightforward than a land border with 208 official road crossings.
However, any border management system still requires sufficient information, clarity and familiarity regarding the rules that apply, and effective operation of the means by which people must comply with them (for example, the Customs Declaration System). There have been problems on all these fronts in the roll-out of the new GB-NI ‘border’. These may well be solved with time and ‘tweaking’, as Northern Ireland has been used as something of a testbed for the new border operating systems for the UK.
Operating the protocol
Some of the tensions that have arisen in UK-EU relations in the first few months of the protocol operation have been because the EU is not fully satisfied with the UK’s enforcement of the new regime. The challenge for the Specialised and Joint Committees – in coming up with agreed solutions for operating the protocol – is to decipher which of these issues are owing to inadequacies in UK preparation, which are owing to a lack of realism in the EU’s expectations as to what frictions can be introduced in a highly integrated market, and which are down to a deliberate disregard by the UK of the legal conditions set by the protocol.
Frictions across the Irish Sea are not confined to trade and business. The political frictions and sensitivities over this new trading relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are just as significant. The Withdrawal Agreement is known as the ‘Betrayal Act’ by unionists, and Boris Johnson enjoys approval ratings in Northern Ireland of just 17 per cent (although this is still considerably higher than the four per cent achieved by his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis).
The truth is that levels of trust between the British government and people of all views and backgrounds in Northern Ireland are very low. There is no doubt that this is connected to Brexit and its fallout, including the protocol. The Remain-voting majority are angry at being taken out of the European Union because of a majority vote in England and Wales. And unionists are angry at the terms of the protocol. As they see it, there is a harder Irish Sea border in order to avoid a harder Irish land border, which constitutes a ‘win’ for nationalists and a ‘lose’ for unionists.
The EU’s ‘genuine mistake’ in temporarily invoking Article 16 safeguard measures in an effort to prevent the movement of vaccines into the UK across the Irish border undoubtedly exacerbated the sense of vulnerability in Northern Ireland and mistrust of the EU’s motives. Even though the chances of the UK and EU being willing to renegotiate the protocol are slim to nil, the very fact that the protocol is seen as in effect weakening the UK union means that much has to change before unionists will feel able to offer even tacit support for it.
As such, the political and practical management of the protocol risks deepening existing polarisation in Northern Ireland. This not only provides for a toxic political environment in the region; it also adds to the difficulties of finding consensus in the power-sharing coalition of the Northern Ireland Executive. The economic stability of Northern Ireland is intrinsically connected to its political stability. Both are now in the hands of the UK and the EU.
A longer version of this article will be published in the Political Quarterly journal.