Brief context: the Troubles
From the late 1960’s until the late 1990’s, the historically contested region of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, experienced decades of sectarian tensions and constant politically driven violence known by many as the Troubles. These conflicts were motivated by disagreements between the Protestant loyalists, who wished to remain a part of the UK, and the pro-secession Catholics, who fought for the union of Northern Ireland (NI) with the Republic of Ireland (ROI), resulting in the death of more than 3500 people throughout the years.
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, managing to attenuate the tension between the dominant protestant parties and the catholic minority. This settlement established a power-sharing government, in which the two sides served together, facilitated disarmament, and even abolished the border checks between NI and the ROI. Since then, Northern Ireland has made remarkable progress and, twenty-five years later, it was commonly understood that the former period of violence and instability was put behind in history.
Is this too good to be true? What happened since? – Brexit
Recently, Brexit has thrown a wrench in the peace process: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has been overshadowed by the Brexit-related trade impasses, which prompted increasing doubts in the region’s hard-won gains. Furthermore, the newly set trade and border arrangements have brought discontent among Protestants, sparking newfound concerns and buried conflict.
In Northern Ireland, about 56% people voted in favor of staying in the European Union, with the Democratic Unionist Party being the only major Northern Irish party to support the separation. The majority of votes were clear on their motives, since the EU was directly involved in the funding of reconciliation programs, amounting to almost 2 billion euros since 1995.
Following the vote for Britain to leave the EU, many questioned what new agreements were to come regarding trade and customs, but one question in particular gathered the most interest and concern: What was going to happen between NI and ROI, to the only land border between the two separating blocks? The UK had two choices: either draw the border in the island of Ireland, returning to a hard border between the once in conflict regions and threaten the Good Friday Agreement, or draw it in the Irish Sea, effectively separating NI from the rest of the UK. Despite Boris Johnson claiming that there would be no checks on goods going from NI to Great Britain (GB), the government ultimately decided in favor of the latter, creating the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Issues on the agreement quickly arose as it became clear that this decision was not supported by the NI’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the European Research Group (ERG) – a group of British Brexiter members of parliament –, criticizing what they understood to be too many checks and the continuous jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over NI, pressuring the government for a renegotiation. Nevertheless, negotiations stalled for years, with successive governments failing to come to a resolution. It came as a surprise, therefore, when Rishi Sunak’s government announced that it had reached a deal with the EU in the form of the Windsor Framework.
The new compromise established regulations for green lanes – goods moving from GB to NI, requiring only minimal checks – and red lanes – goods moving from GB and through NI to the ROI, requiring the whole range of checks imposed by the EU. Moreover, agreements were reached regarding the democratic deficit between the regions. Previously, NI was subject to not only present but also future EU regulations, with the understanding being that if the region would maintain access to the block’s single market, it would have to comply with its rules. Under the new accord, however, roughly 1700 pages of EU regulations would not be enforced in NI, meaning only some 3% “strictly necessary” rules would be applicable in the province. The deal also gives NI an emergency break option, the Stormont brake, under which changes to EU agricultural, goods, and customs rules can be vetoed by the northern Irish assembly if expressed “in a detailed and publicly available written explanation” why the rule has a significant impact on NI’s citizens’ everyday life. Under those circumstances, the rule would be suspended, and it would be up to a joint UK and EU committee to renegotiate the directive.
Even after significant progress, both sides were seemingly unwilling to budge further. While the Sinn Féin Social Democratic and Labor Party expressed optimism, NI’s other major party, the DUP, expressed doubts, insisting there was “still some work required” as some concerns revolving the ECJ remained unattended. They were quickly joined by the ERG that said they would not support a deal that allowed a role for the ECJ. Ursula von der Leyen was also quick to clarify that the ECJ would remain the final arbiter of the EU law. What role would the ECJ have if the Stormont brake were to be, in the eyes of the EU, unjustly activated, remains unclear.
What comes next?
If Sunak’s government can convince the EU to waiver the jurisdiction of the ECJ in NI and convince the DUP to agree to the new conditions, the deal would be finalized, and the issue resolved. Nevertheless, this looks extremely unlikely, as not only would the EU likely be adamant on the ECJ’s role to maintain EU rules and jurisdiction in place, but the DUP has historically given little concessions over their idea of complete separation of the UK from the European block of 27. This leaves the government with two options: scrap the deal – appeasing Brexiters, though leaving the issue unresolved, and irking along the way both the EU and the British public that are increasingly fed up with the Brexit movement – or move forward with the deal – effectively relying on the British labor party votes to approve it in the parliament, though irritating the other major political party – the conservative parliamentary party.
As was the case for its two predecessors, many predict that the government will follow the first option. Nevertheless, if Sunak can break the trend, there is a chance for the deal separating the UK from the EU to finally reach its conclusion.
Sources: HISTORY, Council on Foreign Relations, Intelligencer, NBC News, Associated Press News, BBC News, Brookings, Reuters, Customs4trade, The Guardian, European Commission