Conservative Party leaders have made another U-Turn, this time on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement they negotiated in January. It has caused concern as it potentially jeopardises the precarious position of Northern Ireland post-Brexit. The Withdrawal Agreement included a Northern Ireland Protocol which ensured that there would be no hard border with the Republic of Ireland by allowing NI to follow EU Customs Rules and Product Standards by introducing checks at NI’s ports.
The newly passed Internal Market Bill gives ministers the power to effectively ignore parts of the protocol and modify export rules for goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The Bill has received criticism from Keir Starmer who accused the government of ‘reopening old arguments’. The Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis himself admitted that the bill breaks international law, but in a ‘limited’ way, and senior government lawyer Sir Jonathon Jones has resigned over the matter.
However, the Northern Ireland Protocol is inherently flawed anyway. One of the most talked about issues during Brexit negotiations; NI was surprisingly hardly mentioned during the run up to the referendum. Great Britain almost entirely overlooked the Good Friday Agreement and the logistical nightmare that they were letting themselves in for.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), brought an end to 30 years of conflict between Irish Republicans and Northern Irish Loyalists. It did so by guaranteeing the right of people in Northern Ireland to self-identify as Irish, British, or both, and to hold citizenship of either or both countries. This agreement was negotiated by the RoI and the UK as two EU members, under the conditions and regulations of the EU, with the broad assumption they would remain as such. Thus, if the UK leaves the EU these rights will be violated or undermined in some way.
As a non-member state, the UK no longer has to adhere to EU regulations, however the RoI remains a member. This means that to protect its citizens from goods which do not meet EU customs rules and product standards, it would have to implement a hard border with the UK. This, however, violates the Good Friday Agreement and poses a threat to peace.
A hard border with checks would be a physical and symbolic separation of NI and the RoI. As well as being physically difficult to police, this would encroach upon the equal legitimacy of Irish and British self-determination within NI as there would be a border on one side, but not the other. A hard border would also be a symbol of the Troubles and the violence which occurred there for so many years. There were fears it would become a target for sectarian violence and potentially could see a return of armed guards or military presence.
To prevent a hard border with the RoI, the government negotiated checks at Northern Ireland’s ports – a border between NI and Great Britain in the Irish Sea. This was met with opposition from the DUP, as it effectively creates the same problem for unionists and British identities that a land border does for nationalists and Irish identities. Furthermore, this would mean that NI would have to adhere to laws that Britain is exempt from, and has no say over. In short, as a member state, the RoI would be voting for laws which affect NI, but the UK would not, as it would have relinquished this right by leaving the EU. To unionists, this might be a step towards reunification of Ireland, which would be unacceptable.
The Government is backtracking again, on a deal they sold to the public as ‘oven ready’, realising that the terms they negotiated, or indeed any terms would be detrimental to the delicate peace in NI. Britain’s will to push Brexit through at the expense of this, opens us up to international scrutiny. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has been clear that if the Good Friday Agreement is violated or undermined, there will be no US-UK trade deal. Northern Ireland itself voted to remain within the EU, and like Scotland, there are fears being forced to leave the EU will re-invigorate nationalist sentiment.
By Ella Lloyd
Image: by Stephen Darlington via Flickr