The Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party and MP for North Down, Stephen Farry, writes for the Social Liberal Forum on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.
Since 1st January, Brexit, and with it the Northern Ireland Protocol, has been live. Unsurprisingly, serious problems have characterised those initial few weeks, and, beyond those, we will be bearing the consequences of Brexit for many years to come.
The immediate issues include problems of movement of some goods into Northern Ireland which are causes of great concern for businesses and consumers. While many shipments are getting through, there are some common threads as to why others are being held up or not even starting out. Some of the problems arise from a very tight timescale for implementation, poor information, and lack of engagement from companies based in Great Britain. Deeper challenges lie with Brexit itself and the nature of the UK-EU trade deal. They are being manifested across the UK. Northern Ireland is not alone in that respect. However, there are issues arising from the specific terms of and operational decisions around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Alliance Party did not advocate the Protocol. We opposed the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol, when it was voted upon in both the House of Commons and the European Parliament. Better options existed for addressing the particular challenges posed to Northern Ireland from Brexit. We made that clear. However, these alternatives, ranging from a People’s Vote to reconsider Brexit itself, through a soft Brexit based around continued UK-wide membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, to the backstop had all been blocked or rejected by Parliament, including the DUP, whose interest and indeed that of Northern Ireland’s, suggested avoiding a hard or no deal Brexit.
The Protocol can be seen essentially as a product of the decisions taken by the UK Government around Brexit, and the consequent and inescapable need to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Sadly, Northern Ireland remains both a contested state and a divided society. The Good Friday Agreement is the means of managing these tensions, but much work remains to build an integrated and reconciled society. Northern Ireland only works through sharing and interdependence. People interact both north-south and east-west. Businesses have supply chains and sales both north-south and east-west. The Good Friday Agreement was enabled by both UK and Ireland being full members of the European Union. However, Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, means new borders, boundaries and friction. Once the UK decided to leave both the Customs Union and Single Market, some type of an interface between economic zones was inevitable. If there had to be any interface, it would be easier managed down the Irish Sea, with fewer crossing points and fewer overall movements.
In effect, the Protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the Single Market for goods (but not in the other fundamental freedoms) and while the region remains within the UK Customs territory, the EU Customs Code is in effect managed down the Irish Sea. So, the Irish Sea becomes a customs and regulatory interface. Any default on the Protocol risks the return of a land border on the island of Ireland, and undermining the Good Friday Agreement.
Given the lack of alternatives, and as part of the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore international law, the Protocol does need to be fully implemented. Boris Johnson struggled to accept the realities of what he had agreed to, and fought a futile and counterproductive rearguard action through the Internal Market Bill.
All that said, the Protocol brings some particular economic and political challenges. In particular, the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement require the Northern Ireland Assembly to renew elements of the Protocol every four years. This may become yet another source of polarisation and tension in our politics.
The key task is to turn what could be a solid line down the Irish Sea as far as possible into a dotted line. However, Brexit is Brexit, and the circle cannot be entirely squared. Differences will remain.
Belatedly in December, the UK Government and the European Commission agreed some outstanding decisions relating to the operation of the Protocol, and with that some grace or adjustments periods. These alone were likely to be insufficient. The nature of the future relationship between the EU and UK would be crucial. On the surface the zero tariff, zero quota aspect of the Trade and Co-Operation Agreement is very helpful in that regard, but it does little to advance regulatory co-operation between the EU and UK that would in turn have eased the regulatory border.
Within the Protocol itself, through the Joint Partnership Committee and the Specialised Committee there is scope for the EU and UK to agree other flexibilities, and this is a large focal point of my advocacy work at present. Any unilateral action outside this framework would be risky and ultimately self-defeating, while placing Northern Ireland businesses in a very uncertain legal position.
Brexit has destabilised an already fragile Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether or not the economic turbulence around Brexit and the Protocol settles down and indeed if Northern Ireland gains some comparative economic advantages relative to Great Britain on the basis of its greater access to the EU market. Over time, the Protocol may stabilise the politics of Northern Ireland through offering a sustainable means of containing the challenges thrown up by Brexit, but if not, it raises much greater uncertainty over the future.
Dr Stephen Farry is the MP for North Down and the Deputy Leader of the Alliance Party.