Northern Ireland Protocol must be renegotiated to preserve peace
The results of last week’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections were shocking, even though they were not surprising.
The nationalists of Sinn Fein had been polling increasingly well since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016. Compared with the previous assembly elections, however, its votes barely increased. Meanwhile, the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, has lost popular support — in part because it propped up a minority Conservative UK administration several years ago, in part because of the wear and tear of government — a situation made more difficult because of the political climate across the island of Ireland.
That is why Sinn Fein has finished in first place in the elections and now looks poised to introduce major political disruption to the system of power sharing in Belfast. This system was always perilous and has been dissolved several times. But this is the greatest challenge to peaceful self-government in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.
Many observers would blame the outcome of this election solely on Britain’s decision to leave the EU. But there is much blame to go around. It is true that Northern Ireland has suffered over the past six years — but the blame is significantly placed on the workings of the EU and the terms it has attempted to force on Northern Ireland.
Commerce between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has been seriously held up as part of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a piece of deal-making that has introduced customs restrictions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This has placed specific industries and their supply chains under threat and is continually at risk of breaking down. Meanwhile, it has eroded Northern Ireland’s link to Great Britain by placing Northern Irish affairs under European courts and subjecting them to a de facto European veto.
This arrangement was always meant to be temporary. All sides have claimed that it is both unsatisfactory and a real threat to economic prosperity and political harmony in Northern Ireland. Yet it persists, in no small part because of EU inflexibility.
With Northern Ireland experiencing the sort of turmoil last week’s election has brought, the UK cannot stand by and do nothing forever.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
One gets the impression that for the EU, the fate of Northern Ireland has always been as much about causing diplomatic discomfort to the UK as it has been about attempting to honor the Good Friday Agreement and secure prosperity and development for Northern Ireland.
Numerous gambits have been tried during negotiations to alleviate the worst effects of the protocol. The UK has been engaging with the EU on this precise point for a long time. Article 16 of the protocol allows for it to be terminated if one party declares it has utterly failed. On the UK side, the protocol has long been considered a failure.
Since July 2021, when the UK declared that the threshold for triggering Article 16 had been reached, the protocol has been entirely sustained by British good faith. Yet since then there has been no sign of movement and Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice president for interinstitutional relations, has repeatedly said that he has no mandate to renegotiate the protocol. The effect is not cooperation but an unhappy stalemate.
The UK still wants a solution, one that is worked out through dialogue with the EU. This has not been forthcoming. With Northern Ireland experiencing the sort of turmoil last week’s election has brought, the UK cannot stand by and do nothing forever.
Many companies that operate from Great Britain have publicly declared their unwillingness to supply Northern Ireland because of the restricted movement of goods — within a sovereign state — because of the costs of paperwork levied by an outside bloc.
The protocol itself is also a source of contention within Northern Irish politics. The Democratic Unionists, who had no power to affect the EU’s bargaining, could only warn in increasingly dire tones that the continuing restrictions threaten the integrity of Northern Ireland within the UK, and the very possibility of its economy continuing to recover post-pandemic.
The protocol is unpopular, and its popularity or lack thereof is sectarian as it simply does not command cross-community consent. A new, divisive “wedge issue” such as this is something Northern Irish politics hardly needs. Indeed, the protocol is starting to undermine the very spirit of the Good Friday Agreement that it was intended, as a short-term measure, to protect.
In London, the gears are moving. Early in his term, Prime Minister Boris Johnson created a new ministry for himself, the Ministry of the Union. Similar moves are afoot in light of last week’s election results. A new title has been created for Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns: He is now also the prime minister’s special representative to the US on the Northern Ireland Protocol and he has been dispatched to Washington on that mission.
The significance of this should not be underestimated. Not only is Burns a Belfast-born Catholic, he is also one of Johnson’s closest friends and allies in the British Parliament.
Even in a time of political upheaval, the duty of the UK toward Northern Ireland remains clear: It must attempt to uphold the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, even if European intransigence indicates that these concerns are far from the front of mind in Brussels.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim