Ireland’s thorny border problem

Ireland’s thorny border problem

Ireland’s thorny border problem
An official checks a motorist as truckers carrying freight from Scotland disembark a ferry at the Port of Larne in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. (File/AFP)
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Part of the agreement under which the UK left the EU is the Northern Ireland protocol, a measure that effectively keeps Northern Ireland inside the European single market and avoids a hard border with the Irish Republic, but erects a regulatory barrier in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The government in London and unionist politicians in Belfast believe the protocol is being implemented in such a way as to carve Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK, and it has proved unworkable in its current form.

Lord Frost, who negotiated much of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and is now a minister, said the protocol was “not working and needs to change.” This was taken to mean that the UK government was determined to tear up the agreement whatever the cost, whatever the consequences.

Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, appeared to suggest that the US  feared a collapse of the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. “Without something like the Northern Ireland protocol and with the possibility of the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland  and the Republic of Ireland, we will have a serious risk to stability and to the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. “That is of significant concern to the US.”

It certainly is. Peace in Northern Ireland is a major concern to American policymakers and voters. It matters especially to Joe Biden and his White House, and to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But it would be wrong to suggest that if the protocol must be amended then the Good Friday Agreement is in danger, and that it is imperilled by Britain.

Although media coverage may portray Sullivan as in opposition to the UK government, he need not be. British policymakers agree with Sullivan and share America’s stated objectives. They support the Good Friday Agreement, and they will strive to get “something like the protocol” to work.

If Britain, the EU and Ireland negotiate in the good faith they express, the Good Friday Agreement is not in danger, and nor is the peace in Northern Ireland. 

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The protocol was born of a great and thorny compromise. The British government agreed to it in no small part because of its determination to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and to never again see a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Now the protocol is causing difficulties, to Britain, to Northern Ireland, and to the Republic.

Traders of all sizes have faced additional burdens. The Northern Ireland Executive estimated that, from January to March, about 20 per cent of all the EU’s customs checks were being conducted in respect of Northern Ireland – even though its population is about 0.5 per cent of the EU’s total population.

Those difficulties, in their own way, challenge the political and economic stability which supports the peace established in 1998. Without amendment and change, political discord may follow economic dislocation.

Whatever the implications of rhetoric, the UK government is committed to keeping the parts of the protocol which are practical, and reforming the rest on lines to which everyone will, when negotiations conclude, agree.

Great common interests exist between the EU, the UK, the Irish government, and the people and political parties of Northern Ireland. They are best protected by supporting and upholding the fundamental objectives that the protocol exists to preserve.
This community of interests — with the other post-Brexit arrangements now settled — provides a strong basis on which to find more productive and sustainable arrangements to deliver more effectively on those objectives, while also addressing the political, societal, and economic difficulties that have developed since the protocol was first negotiated.  

If Britain, the EU and the Republic of Ireland negotiate in the good faith they express, the Good Friday Agreement is not in danger, and nor is the peace in Northern Ireland. Each deserves American support to keep it so.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Director of Special Initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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