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  • Writer's pictureAzeem Ibrahim OBE

Sunak Pulls a Brexit Rabbit Out of His Hat

Northern Ireland’s thorny border problem may finally have an answer.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen seemed equally happy when they announced the Windsor framework on Feb. 27. The deal is projected to end more than half a decade of Brexit-based upheaval in Northern Ireland and to begin—in the words of more than one British prime minister—to “get Brexit done.”

For years, since Britain formally left the European Union in 2020, Northern Ireland has existed under a legal stopgap regime called the Northern Ireland Protocol. It was intended to avoid a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland springing up at the very moment of a dramatic British exit from the European Union—something that, some feared, would spur disagreement, violence, and communal strife.

The protocol meant, in effect, that Northern Ireland would remain inside the EU in practical terms on a provisional basis so that the border with the Republic of Ireland could remain open and free from the kinds of documents and customs checks that are against the spirit of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 1998. That agreement ended decades of violence, creating cross-border institutions with Ireland and recognizing the validity of both sets of claims to Northern Irish identity—Nationalists who wanted to reunite with Ireland and Unionists who saw themselves as British. The absence of a hard border with Ireland itself was key to that peace deal.

The post-2020 protocol was an unhappy compromise in order to keep the border open. But it meant creating new barriers. For British and Northern Irish Unionists, this meant that Northern Ireland was effectively split off from the rest of the United Kingdom, with a de facto tdae border in the Irish Sea between it and the island of Great Britain.

In Northern Ireland under the protocol, some European laws would still apply, the European Court of Justice would have the final say over the interpretation of applicable EU laws, and, Northern Ireland could not legally follow any new practices introduced in Britain. Indeed, for British goods to arrive in Northern Ireland, they would have to be subject to customs checks and regulatory alignment. This also had real economic consequences. Businesses that shipped between Northern Ireland and Great Britain had a difficult time adjusting. They had to pay far more on compliance. Their trucks were stopped and inspected at intolerable rates. They were compelled to follow two separate regulatory regimes to operate within one country. Many could not meet these new standards and pay these new fees, and business in and commerce to Northern Ireland dried up. Northern Irish “sales of goods to GB peaked in 2016, falling in the next two years before recovering slightly in 2019” and more strongly thereafter, according to Northern Ireland’s statistical authority. But crucially, the eventual recovery of trade was disproportionately in services rather than goods, which often remained restricted.

Some of the trades most affected were among the most important for daily life. There were periodic fears that medicines—regulated in Northern Ireland by both British medical regulators and European ones—might run out, with new supplies days away behind customs checks and extra paperwork. Similarly, rules about livestock transportation, the storage and shipping of meat, and food standards threatened to make food scarce or increase prices.

Northern Irish politics is very local and very messy. The region is run by a coalition of Nationalist and Unionist parties—uneasy bedfellows at the best of times—including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is also represented at Westminster. The DUP propped up former Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government between 2017 and 2019. For the DUP, these economic brakes were not just materially negative for Northern Ireland; they were a constitutional affront, proof that Britain’s sovereignty was fundamentally compromised.

When the DUP effectively vetoed May’s various Brexit deals, her government fell. When Boris Johnson’s government could operate without the DUP, and the party suffered electoral reverses in the 2019 general election and in local elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it was left a somewhat plaintive voice.

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