Home > News > Northern Ireland’s borders are stirring up trouble again
197 views 9 min 0 Comment

Northern Ireland’s borders are stirring up trouble again

Why is Boris Johnson threatening to scrap the agreement that he negotiated?

- November 18, 2021

Once again, Northern Ireland’s border is causing strife between the United Kingdom and the European Union. This time, however, it is not just Northern Ireland’s century-old political border with the Republic of Ireland that is the source of the problem, but Northern Ireland’s new post-Brexit economic border with the rest of the U.K.

While tension over what’s called the “Northern Ireland Protocol” seems to have de-escalated after European and U.S. lawmakers intervened, the calm won’t last. The protocol was a messy compromise over how to implement Brexit while maintaining Northern Ireland’s fragile peace. Despite initial problems over coronavirus vaccine supplies, it’s been functioning fairly well. And yet, having negotiated this agreement, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now threatening to tear it up.

Johnson said he had negotiated a ‘great deal’ for Britain

Like his predecessor, Theresa May, Johnson insisted that Brexit wouldn’t bring a hard border to the island of Ireland, even though the Republic of Ireland remained in the E.U. while Northern Ireland exited with the rest of the U.K.

The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is more than 300 miles long. Before Brexit, freight flowed freely down the A1/M1 motorway from Belfast to Dublin. Now this motorway crosses the E.U. border with the U.K. There are more than 200 road crossings between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Customs checkpoints — or any other form of “hard border” — at any location could become a target for republican paramilitaries seeking a united Ireland.

The desire to avoid a “hard border” led to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland aligned with certain E.U. regulations and introduces customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — so that goods can still travel uninterrupted along the A1/M1.

It was, Johnson told the House of Commons in October 2019, “a great deal.” Now the prime minister deplores how his own agreement has created “unnecessary checks down the Irish Sea.”

Ulster loyalists are burning buses and cars in Belfast, thanks to Brexit

The protocol is leading to booming trade — across Ireland

Since the protocol launched, trade has boomed across Ireland. According to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, exports from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland increased 60 percent in the first nine months of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020, although of course 2020 figures were skewed by coronavirus pandemic precautions. Meanwhile, exports from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland increased by 48 percent.

In a recent poll, 53 percent of Northern Irish respondents agreed that the protocol was an appropriate response to Brexit, up from 46 percent four months earlier. In the same survey, 62 percent agreed that the arrangement could benefit Northern Ireland.

The protocol reveals Brexit’s political contradictions

If the Northern Ireland Protocol is working, why would the British government threaten to suspend it unilaterally?

One reason is that unionist parties — which want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom — dislike the agreement. They are as incensed about customs controls with the rest of the U.K. as republicans would be if those controls divided Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Unionists also fear that the trade surge between Northern Ireland and Ireland hurts Northern Ireland’s economic — and therefore political — relationship with the rest of the U.K. Less than a third of voters in Northern Ireland support a united Ireland, according to a recent poll, but two-thirds believe that, because of Brexit, Northern Ireland should hold a referendum on the issue. Finally, by criticizing the protocol, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has helped to reverse its slide in the polls for the elections expected before May 2022.

People are talking up the prospects of a united Ireland. It’s easier said than done.

Johnson’s threat to trigger Article 16 could be designed to help the DUP, a party with close ties to his own. But it is unclear how much the prime minister really cares about Northern Ireland. His predecessor needed the DUP’s support to keep her in office after the 2017 general election. But Johnson won a majority in 2019, allowing him to break promises to unionist politicians about not allowing border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Johnson may oppose the protocol because the agreement reveals the political contradictions at the heart of Brexit. Northern Ireland’s privileged relationship with the E.U. may be necessary for political stability, but it’s a reminder of how costly withdrawal from the E.U. has been for the rest of the U.K. The British government’s own number crunchers estimate that U.K. imports and exports have already fallen by 15 percent as a result of leaving the E.U., and that the U.K.’s growth potential will fall by 4 percent by 2035.

E.U. and U.S. lawmakers are keeping up the pressure on the U.K.

Johnson’s Brexit envoy, David Frost, threatened to scrap the protocol without saying what would come next. This damages trust with the E.U., which sees the British government as wanting to break its word and, perhaps, to pass off Brexit’s costs to Ireland and the E.U. If the U.K. eventually reneges on its commitment to customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the E.U. will have to decide whether to impose checks of its own on goods before they reach Ireland. Such measures would violate the E.U.’s customs union and damage the Irish economy.

Pugnacious defenses of British sovereignty are popular with the Conservative Party and Euroskeptic British press. Johnson might be tempted to trigger Article 16 to distract from corruption allegations against the party. If he does, the European Commission has said there would be “serious consequences.”

For more analysis, check out TMC’s ever-expanding topic guides.

The Commission has proposed changes to the protocol’s implementation to reduce red tape and involve local groups in decision-making. Its challenge is to bring moderate unionist politicians into this conversation. U.S. lawmakers are keeping up pressure on the British government. President Biden’s meeting last week with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was closely watched in London. So too was the joint statement by U.S. Reps. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), William R. Keating (D.-Mass.), Earl Blumenauer (D.-Ore.) and Brendan Boyle (D.-Pa.), which called on the U.K. “to abandon this dangerous path, and to commit to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in full.”

Don’t miss any TMC analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Dermot Hodson (@dermot_hodson) is professor of political economy at Birkbeck College, University of London.