The relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is a complex one, characterised by violence and stark disagreement. Now, as Boris Johnson stands by the Northern Ireland Protocol, tensions are mounting once more.
Until this week things were looking up in the Irish border town of Newry. Situated just north of the line separating Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic, the ancient market town and its 30,000 residents have been a beneficiary of the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. At the height of the Troubles in the late 1970s the unemployment rate in Newry was around 30 percent; today it is just two percent. Though today it appears peaceful, during the Troubles, Newry was a dangerous place with 53 people recorded as having been fatally shot or blown up in bomb attacks.
Now Britain’s Boris Johnson is threatening the deal that brought peace and prosperity to Ireland, as President Joe Biden and other top officials engaged in talks over the weekend to prevent this happening.
But what were the Troubles? The conflict was between the overwhelmingly Protestant unionists ‒ they preferred to be known as loyalists ‒ who desired the province to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the predominantly Catholic nationalists who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic to the south. As the bitterness between the two sides grew, the British army was sent to the province. The conflict further deteriorated as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary force, entered the fray.
The IRA targeted British soldiers and Protestant loyalists, whereas loyalist paramilitaries sought out Catholics, including priests with strong links to Sinn Fein, the active political wing of the Republican movement. As an Australian journalist employed by an American newspaper, the Washington Post, I moved about freely, observing the all too familiar sight of a cordon of blue ribbon surrounding a corpse lying in a pool of blood, guarded by a lone policeman waiting for a body bag to arrive. Occasionally, you encountered dark humour such as when I passed a British army command post on my way for a meeting with a Sinn Fein operator in the Bogside area of Londonderry.
“Go down there, and you will come back in a wooden overcoat,” quipped the solider.
The conflict finally petered out in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, after two years of talks brokered by the United States and the EU.
A copy was sent to every household in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. A month later the people of both countries agreed via referendum to support a deal which provided for power-sharing between the nationalist and republican communities in Northern Ireland through the creation of a new national assembly, given devolved powers by London.
Alas, many old antagonisms remain, and the Assembly has been suspended periodically, with one period seeing power reversed to London and Westminster’s Northern Ireland minister.
The big problem was, of course, Brexit. In the referendum, where the British voted narrowly to end UK membership of the European Union, the Northern Irish joined the Scots in choosing to remain. Boris Johnson, who later became the British prime minister, desperate to “get Brexit done” – his election slogan – created what has become known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. This formed an essential part of the free trade agreement he negotiated between Britain and the EU and is designed to govern special arrangements for Northern Ireland. Because the trade deal gives Northern Ireland access to the lucrative European Union single market, it provides for customs checks on goods moving to and from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom. This has infuriated the pro-union Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which has demanded the removal of the protocol. Northern Ireland now finds itself in crisis, because at last week’s elections ‒ where the republican Sinn Fein party received the largest number of votes ‒ the DUP has refused to rejoin the power-sharing administration until the protocol is removed.
Johnson, who originally denied that the clauses would lead to customs checks being imposed on goods crossing the Irish Sea, has twice promised to remove them, but has not done so. Instead, last Monday, Liz Truss his foreign secretary threatened to introduce such legislation “within weeks” but said she would prefer to agree to suitable amendments with the EU. Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, put it well: “This would destroy the UK’s reputation for keeping its word, invite a parallel repudiation of its free trade deal with Britain, enrage the Biden administration, and divide the West.”
And so it has. The EU response was swift and brisk. Maros Setcovic, vice president of the Commission, said unilateral actions by Britain were unacceptable, and that if the UK went ahead with a Bill the EU “would need to respond with all measures at its disposal.” Though he did not provide specifics, the Brussels-based Commission has considerable weaponry in its armoury, and could go as far as tearing up the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which would devastate the UK economy. Even selective measures could cause considerable harm, such as imposing extra customs checks on goods arriving in, or on vehicles being driven through the Channel Tunnel.
It is not as if Johnson had not been repeatedly warned of the consequences of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement. In 2016 the Agreement’s so-called progenitors, former prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major, flew together to Londonderry, the scene of the notorious Bloody Sunday killings, to warn that there would have to be new customs control along the border between NI and the Republic, now crossed by thousands each day, destabilising north-south relations or creating a new border in the Irish Sea between NI and the rest of the UK.
Johnson’s position is further complicated by President Joe Biden repeatedly voicing objections to his plan from across the Atlantic. Biden has told Johnson several times that he must not tear up the protocol, with the White House press secretary insisting the best way forward is “a pragmatic one that requires courage, cooperation and leadership.”
United States political leaders from both sides of Congress have expressed strong opposition to Johnson’s proposed legislation in weekend meetings in London with UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, trade secretary Marie Trevelyan, and Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, who called the prime minister’s plans “deeply concerning.” His view was backed by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives who said, “The Good Friday Accords are the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and a beacon for the whole world.”
So, what will happen now? At a seminar I attended last week at the University of Cambridge Geopolitics Society, there was agreement that Brussels had already made considerable moves towards reducing the number and type of goods flowing from the EU to Northern Ireland that could be excluded from customs checks. However, participants pointed out that Britain had not complied with a Brussels request to provide a detailed data stream of potential traffic. A law professor noted that the terms of the treaty provided for consultation before it could be terminated, but the overriding view was that EU leaders held Johnson in low regard and did not trust him.
On the border in Newry, they hope for a settlement while representatives of Northern Ireland business dispute claims made by Johnson and the DUP that problems on the border with the UK are damaging the Northern Ireland economy. Stephen Kelly, head of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, claims that three quarters of his members have benefited from the protocol and continued membership of the European single market, which is good news for those worrying in Newry. With a war dominating EU attention in Europe, it is starting to look as if Johnson has picked the wrong issue on which to have his latest fight with the EU.
Colin Chapman is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He was president of AIIA New South Wales.
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