There are growing signs of tension between the United Kingdom and the European Union over the portion of the Brexit treaty that applies to Northern Ireland.
The treaty contained a portion commonly referred to as the Northern Ireland protocol that attempted to solve the issue of maintaining a seamless and open border on the island of Ireland, where the Republic of Ireland to the south is a member of the European bloc, and the British-governed province to the north remains part of the United Kingdom that also includes England, Scotland and Wales.
To solve the conundrum, the Northern Ireland protocol allowed for a customs border between the EU and the UK to be drawn down the Irish Sea, leaving England, Scotland and Wales under a fully British tariff area, and Ulster staying under the same rules as the EU.
Since the treaty was signed, some goods and services along with agricultural products face checks within the UK itself, leading to a feeling among Ulster unionists and loyalists that they are being treated differently than the rest of the UK.
Series of shortages
The protocol has led to a series of shortages of goods being shipped from the UK mainland, while cross-border traffic with the Republic has grown by some 65 per cent since the deal was signed.
The government of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is determined to renegotiate a new deal for the province with Brussels. For its part, the EU says that a deal is a deal and its clauses need to be respected by London.
If things escalate, there is every likelihood that the UK and EU might slip into a trade war, with tariffs being applied across the board on goods moving between the UK and the EU. Clearly, such a scenario is in no one’s interest.
It is not in anyone’s interest either that the main unionist political party — the DUP — failed to take part in the power-sharing government as the junior partner to Sinn Fein, which won a majority of votes in Assembly elections held on May 6. Since then the province has been in limbo as all sides try to move forward while protecting their respective interests and constituencies.
The standoff has also attracted the attention of Washington, with a biparty Congressional delegation visiting the islands to stress the importance of this impasse ending sooner rather than later.
This is a very difficult issue, one where negotiation and dialogue will likely lead to an eventual easing of rules as the protocol becomes part and parcel of the new course Britain has charted outside of the EU. Let’s hope all sides continue to reach a practical solution.