Beyond Brexit: What happens with the Northern Ireland peace deal will reverberate far beyond the UK
“When your own Prime Minister cheers for you when he comes to this city and says there will be no border between us and Britain – and then breaks his word so easily – when your voice is ignored, you feel let down and it There are consequences,” said the loyalist community leader in Belfast after another night of petrol bombs and burning buses.
The man who spoke to me was a former member of the Red Hand Commando who had fought during the long years of the Troubles. The violence we witnessed was reignited in spring 2021 via the Northern Ireland Protocol. The prime minister accused of lying was Boris Johnson.
The protocol had been signed alongside the Brexit deal 15 months earlier – 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement which ended 30 years of bombings and shootings that had claimed more than 3,500 lives. Today, the impasse surrounding the protocol inseparable from the peace agreement persists, bringing with it the specter of a return to the disputes of the day.
During the Brexit negotiations, both the UK and the EU agreed that saving the Northern Ireland Agreement was an absolute priority and the Protocol is a fundamental part of that process. It has been ratified by both sides and is now part of international law.
What is happening with the peace deal has repercussions beyond the UK and European Union. The US played a key mediating role under the Clinton presidency, and honoring the Good Friday Agreement was the commitment of successive US administrations. The chances of a British trade deal with America will disappear if it is jeopardized.
At last year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington, Joe Biden stressed the importance of what is at stake: “The Good Friday Agreement has been the bedrock of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland for almost 25 years: it cannot change”. All sides, according to the US President, “have to continue to solve challenges in the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
The protocol is essentially a trade agreement to transport goods across Ireland’s land border, which required new rules post-Brexit due to strict EU rules on border controls on some goods from outside the Union.
The border is a highly sensitive political issue in Ireland, North and South, and there are real fears that reintroducing open border controls with cameras and checkpoints would encourage instability and invite attacks. Dissident armed Republican and Loyalist groups have maintained a presence in Northern Ireland despite years of relative calm.
The protocol agreed that controls would take place in Northern Ireland ports rather than at the land border and products could then be brought into the Republic. It has also been agreed that Northern Ireland will continue to comply with European Union rules on commodity standards.
Union parties in Northern Ireland opposed the agreement because they felt the maritime border undermined the province’s place in the UK. There was also opposition from Eurosceptic MPs in Westminster, led by the European Research Group (ERG), which has continued to wield influence far beyond its numbers in the five Conservative governments since Brexit.
Continued opposition to the Protocol from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has meant that there is currently no Northern Ireland government at Stormont. Despite coming second to Protocol-backing Sinn Féin in elections six months ago, no government can be formed without the support of the Union Party.
There is also a view in the broader loyalist community that Tory ministers from London misled them about the implications of the deal. Seven months after the Protocol was signed, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on a visit to Ulster, insisted companies would have unrestricted access to markets in England, Scotland and Wales as always. “There will be no border in the Irish Sea,” he declared, “this will happen over my dead body.”
David Campbell, a spokesman for the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella organization representing the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defense Association and the Red Hand Commando, told me: “A lot of people in the union community feel that the government is basically doing that can’t see beyond mid england. We wondered whether Boris Johnson really understood what was at stake here.
“On the other hand, the Irish government has consistently told the EU that if there is a hard border there will be violence; this is seen by the Loyalists as the threat of force to negotiate. It was a dangerous tactic and certainly contributed to the anger among young loyalists.”
The UK government has withdrawn its agreement with the European Union on the protocol, which took four years to negotiate, claiming it has a legal right to “protect an essential interest”. Disagreements arising from the agreement threatened to undermine the peace.
The UK wants to unilaterally change the review status, introducing a two-tier system that would also require changes to the corporate tax system in Northern Ireland, and excluding and replacing the European Court of Justice from any litigation. instead with an independent body. Current Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker, an ERG member, has proposed reopening the Brexit deal negotiated by his colleague David Frost, to remove any role for the European Court of Justice in the proceedings.
There is little likelihood that the EU would agree to such changes. It has taken legal action against the UK for failing to comply with the protocol and has said it is unwilling to renegotiate the key terms. However, Brussels acknowledged that there is scope for simplifying regulations and cutting red tape.
Negotiations on technical issues of the protocol resumed in October for the first time since February. And after the acrimony of the Johnson years, which continued into Liz Truss’ fortnight, there seems to be an overall improvement in relations under Rishi Sunak.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Union, said earlier this month she had held “encouraging” talks with Sunak and both sides should be able to “find a way” for the record. In fact, she is “very confident” that a solution will be found when the UK is ready.
Ms von der Leyen’s words during a visit to Dublin were echoed by Taoiseach Michael Martin, who claimed an agreement could pave the way for a “new and vital partnership” with the UK. Miguel Berger, Germany’s ambassador to London, sees a new “openness to engagement” coming out of Downing Street under the Sunak government and there could be a “landing zone for the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
But Sunak, like Tory Prime Ministers before him, remains paralyzed by his party’s Brexiters and the DUP in Northern Ireland. His freedom of action is restricted by those who view any compromise as treason. The anti-EU Bruges group tweeted this month: “Another sellout? If the EU makes cautiously optimistic noises about a deal, we can be sure that whatever half-baked babble comes out of it will be bad for the UK.”
Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism from Northern Ireland remains “serious”, according to security and intelligence services. It was alleged last month that loyalists were planning an attack in the Irish Republic amid rising tensions over the protocol. The conspiracy, which took place after Sinn Féin called for “shared authority” in provincial government with Dublin, is said to have been abandoned at the last minute.
That Belfast Telegraph has reported that loyalist groups Ulster Volunteer Force and UIster Defense Association are reviewing their ceasefires signed after the Good Friday Agreement. The mood at the meeting of their leaders in County Antrim was “angry and militant,” according to the paper. One of those present said: “There were no hawks and doves, now everyone is hawks.”