Northern Ireland Divided Between the UK and the EU
The UK withdrawal from the European Union (EU), known as Brexit, has impacted the Irish border and the Irish Sea among others. This border is the only land border between the UK and the EU, and the Irish Sea is the area between Northern Ireland and mainland UK.
Brexit has made changes to immigration checks, trade, local economies, medical support, social services, and other issues, when crossing the sea into Northern Ireland. According to the Brexit agreement, there is no border across the island of Ireland; but Northern Ireland is a part of the EU customs union, while it is legally a part of the UK customs as well. Being a member of the EU single market and customs union means that goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Great Britain cross a customs border in the Irish Sea, requiring more paperwork, more time to transfer goods, and more waiting time for Irish stores to receive goods. These new Brexit rules have left some stores empty in Northern Ireland and can put the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the country, at risk.
Border Disruptions Are Threats to the Good Friday Agreement
New post-Brexit rules have disrupted life in Northern Ireland and led Loyalists in Ireland to withdraw their support for the Good Friday Agreement. At the beginning of 2021, the Brexit transition period expired and the UK left the EU, bringing trade in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Protocol. According to this protocol, “Northern Ireland remains within the EU’s single market for goods”.
Northern Ireland has to apply the Union Customs Code to all goods it imports to the country including those goods that are imported from the rest of the UK; its trade with the rest of the UK is much larger than the rest of the EU. Barriers by the Northern Ireland Protocol have had an inappropriate effect on supermarkets and online shopping. Receiving goods for national supermarket chains in Northern Ireland was a part of the peace dividend by the Good Friday Agreement to lower prices for consumers, but the Irish Sea barriers have caused price rises.
Brexit May Bring Back Tensions
The Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, turned 23 on 10 April 2021. The deal was brokered by the UK and the Republic of Ireland after three decades of armed struggle. The Good Friday Agreement lessened tensions in Northern Ireland and brought stability to the country. But new border arrangements as a result of Brexit, can hit the Good Friday Agreement and may bring the hard days of tension back to the country. Between the late 1960s and the late 1990s, tensions and conflicts in Northern Ireland killed more than 3,500 people. That period is known as “The Troubles”, when Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland had three decades of conflict. The battle started when the Catholic minority protested what they considered to be discrimination by domineering Protestants in Northern Ireland. The Protestant Loyalists wanted to remain as part of the UK, while the Catholic republicans wanted to unite with the Republic of Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement Put an End to “The Troubles”
Finally, on 10 April 1998, the UK government and the Republic of Ireland, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, reached a peace agreement. The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was about how Northern Ireland should be governed. All parties addressed issues that had created conflict during “The Troubles” and wanted to create a devolved government for Northern Ireland in which both nationalists and unionists would share power.
The idea of the agreement was to get the two sides to cooperate in an entity called the Northern Ireland Assembly. After the Agreement, some decisions that had previously been made by the UK government in London would be made by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Both people in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in May 1998 went to vote on the agreement and, eventually, those eligible to vote on both sides voted in favour of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to make it official.
Tough Brexit Rules May Rip Apart the Good Friday Agreement
Over the last few months, however, the Brexit deal and new border rules for Northern Ireland have cast doubts on the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement. After the conflicts were over in the late 1990s, Northern Ireland’s border was almost invisible and goods and people were able to cross freely, because both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were EU member countries and in its customs union.
Although both the EU and the UK officials endeavoured to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland during the Brexit negotiations, the UK finally left the single market and customs union. So, there have been some checks and controls in the Irish Sea, bringing back fears of renewed tensions at the border. This disproportionate situation which disrupted trade between Northern Ireland and the UK was a reason for riots to break out on the anniversary of signing the Good Friday Agreement. Due to disruptions caused by the Protocol, unionists are concerned about Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.
Majority in Northern Ireland Voted to Remain in the EU
In the EU referendum of 2016, nearly 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The result of the vote demonstrated the division in Northern Ireland between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists. According to official data, 85% of Catholics and 40% of Protestants in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
On the other hand, since 1995, the EU has been giving over one billion euros to Northern Ireland every year for a scheme known as Peace Plus. But Brexit puts this direct funding at stake. The fear is that whether Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, which brought dissatisfaction to the people, specifically among nationalists, would lead to a desire for independence from the UK. A Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland has recently published a report which states that Brexit bitterness highlights the risks of calling referendums on important constitutional questions in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement presented a framework for a political settlement in Northern Ireland with a focus on sharing power between pro-UK unionists and pro-Ireland nationalists. The Good Friday Agreement asked for the devolution of power from the UK Parliament to a newly created assembly on specific issues. The implementation of Brexit rules related to the Ireland border and the Irish Sea has caused disruptions in transferring goods, resulting in some unrest in Northern Ireland. It is believed that the new checks and controls on the Irish Sea could breach the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland would be at risk.
Unionists who are loyal to the UK are concerned about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and nationalists are keener to unite with the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement specifies that Ireland could be united if this idea is supported in a referendum by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which could be the outcome of all the acrimony caused by Brexit.