Brexit is increasing tension in Northern Ireland, but the protocol is the only way | David Phinnemore

The problems of a border down the Irish Sea were always known – checks and controls have to go somewhere

Will Boris Johnson now trigger article 16? There’s a question few people thought would ever be making the headlines. It’s a legitimate question, however, given the rising tensions in Northern Ireland over its new post-Brexit trade restrictions.

Unionist politicians and others are up in arms about the effects of the Northern Ireland protocol, which was negotiated as part of the EU withdrawal deal to prevent border restrictions between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Instead, there are checks and controls on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. These have led to a significant increase in paperwork for suppliers and haulage companies making the crossing to ports at Belfast and Larne, and trade in some goods, such as those containing soil, is no longer possible at all.

And so there are calls for the UK government to take unilateral safeguard measures, under article 16 of the protocol, to remove an “Irish Sea border” that some believe is threatening Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. The DUP describes the “outworkings” of the protocol as “offensive and running contrary to everything we stand for”.

Yet Brexit was always going to entail disruption. To believe otherwise was to fail to understand – or wilfully ignore – the consequences of leaving a customs union with your largest trading partner and of leaving the shared regulatory environment of the single market and its free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

And Brexit’s disruptive effects were always going to be felt among the hardest in Northern Ireland. The existence of a land border with Ireland guaranteed this. Checks and controls would have to go somewhere.

The Northern Ireland protocol was designed to minimise that disruption, and London and Brussels agreed that Northern Ireland would be treated differently to the rest of the UK: effectively in the EU customs territory and single market for goods. That would mean formalities, checks and controls on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea. This was obvious to many and accepted as the least worst option.

For others, however, it was tantamount to cutting Northern Ireland off from the UK market and undermining its position within the union, hence the often increasingly vocal opposition. The DUP has called on unionists to unite around a clear message: “Northern Ireland must be freed from the protocol.”

That opposition has recently moved beyond parliamentary and media debates. Anti-protocol graffiti has appeared on walls and there have been worrying reports of threats to staff carrying out checks at Larne and Belfast. There is growing discontent on social media, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is reportedly bracing itself for street protests.

Calls for the protocol to go were turbocharged after the European commission came close to triggering article 16 itself last Friday, during its row with AstraZeneca. The commission blundered seriously when proposing that the movement of vaccines from Ireland into Northern Ireland (and hence the UK) be restricted. But it responded swiftly to the understandable outcry and abandoned its intended triggering of article 16. Mea culpa. Lesson learned. It won’t happen again.

However, the damage was done. For many opponents of the protocol, events had demonstrated that the EU could not be trusted to respect the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. The renewed calls for the protocol to be scrapped will not die away quickly.

Yet they are unlikely to be heeded. Instead, the focus of the UK and the EU is – and has to be – on making the protocol work. They will use dialogue and a joint approach to resolve issues, even if the prime minister persists in saying he will not rule out triggering article 16.

Yesterday’s meeting between the UK cabinet minister Michael Gove and Maroš Šefčovic, the commissioner responsible for the protocol’s implementation, and their commitment to redouble efforts to address outstanding issues is instructive. The instinct is dialogue and resolution, not an abandonment of the protocol.

Understandably, the UK government, backed by those on the ground adapting to the realities of Brexit and the protocol, sees an opportunity to push for further easing of the protocol’s implementation. This could include extending the current grace periods for export health certificates, medicines, parcels and meat products, which are due to expire on 31 March. The UK is hoping for 1 January 2023. But there are other issues that need addressing, such as tariffs on steel imports and bans on seed imports.

Brexit is proving a major challenge. Even without Covid, it was never going to be easy – particularly with business not knowing until the very last minute what form the UK-EU relationship was going to take.

And the process has not been helped by politicians issuing naive and misleading statements about what the new arrangements would entail in terms of checks and controls. Repeated claims from Johnson and his ministers that there would be “no border down the Irish Sea” are simply not believed.

When the protocol came fully into force on 1 January, few were fully prepared, and its opponents have been quick to seize on disruptions as evidence of it failing. However, Brexit was always going to mean disruption. The challenge is to manage it: there is no other obvious or immediate option than the protocol.

  • David Phinnemore is professor of European politics at Queen’s University Belfast


David Phinnemore

The GuardianTramp

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