When the UK voted to leave the EU in what was known as Brexit, it was known that the status of Ireland would cause problems. This is because the UK leaving the EU meant that there would have to be a customs and tariffs border between the two trading blocs. A line in the English Channel would not work since the Republic of Ireland was in the EU while Northern Ireland, being part of the UK, would be out. Hence where would the border line be drawn? It was unthinkable to have a land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland as there was during the time of the bitter conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Belfast agreement that ended that conflict also resulted in the free movement of Irish people between the two parts of the island and almost no one wants to see a border reintroduced. Boris Johnson, one of the chief proponents of Brexit, breezily claimed that he could solve the problem somehow. But his actions seem to be making the situation much worse.
The issue is complex and requires delicate maneuvering. But Johnson’s party has introduced a new Northern Ireland Protocol bill that unilaterally overrides the treaty it signed earlier.
Special trading arrangements were needed for Northern Ireland after the UK voted for Brexit in 2016. This is because it’s the only part of the UK with a land border with an EU country – the Republic of Ireland.
Before Brexit, it was easy to transport goods across this border because both sides had the same EU trade rules. No checks or paperwork were necessary.
After Brexit, a new system was needed because the EU has strict food rules and requires border checks when certain goods – such as milk and eggs – arrive from non-EU countries.
Instead of checking goods at the Irish border, the protocol agreed that any inspections and document checks would be conducted between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). These take place at Northern Ireland’s ports.
On 15 June 2022 the European Commission took legal action against the UK for not keeping to the protocol it had signed.
It also called on the government to return to negotiations, saying there had been no meaningful discussions since February.
It is not prepared to renegotiate the protocol but has offered to work on how it is implemented.
Peter Hain, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and who helped negotiate the treaty over Northern Ireland, writes that Boris Johnson seems to be wanting to destroy it to serve his own short-term needs.
There is something Putinesque about the government’s framing of its Northern Ireland protocol bill. It is almost the opposite of what Boris Johnson, his man in Belfast, Brandon Lewis, and the hardline backbenchers he’s appeasing claim it to be.
Leave to one side that it trashes Britain’s reputation. That it was conceived in London as a solution to the Northern Ireland Brexit conundrum. That it reneges on the withdrawal agreement Johnson and his lieutenant, David Frost, negotiated with the EU. Never mind that it breaks an international treaty the UK signed. Forget very old-fashioned notions of truth, sticking to your word, trust and obeying international law.
Instead focus upon its real purpose: dog-whistling to Johnson’s base by triggering a humongous row with the old villain Brussels because that worked so well in the 2016 Brexit referendum. And keep that going – if at all possible – all the way to the next general election.
I genuinely felt that the 2007 devolution settlement I helped negotiate under Blair had ended the horror and cemented hope. We felt that by bringing the old blood enemies, the DUP and Sinn Féin, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, to share government together, the Good Friday agreement would be locked in, over time deepening peace, stability and inclusive democracy. Sadly, while the vandals now in charge of Britain run amok, I’m not so sure any more.
Actually, rather than Putinesque, a more accurate description of Johnson’s behavior is Trumpesque, the creation of non-existent enemies, the constant lying, and the blatant pandering to his base, which has resulted in the other parties not trusting that he will honor any new agreement that he signs on to.