Gulf Today

There is a way to reduce tensions in Northern Ireland — but only if pragmatism trumps politics

- Anton Spisak,

When Britain debated the case for leaving the EU before the 2016 referendum, two former UK prime ministers, John Major and Tony Blair, travelled to Belfast. They warned that the open border between the north and south of Ireland was inconsiste­nt with the UK leaving the EU single market.

The UK, said Major and Blair, would be faced with a choice between abandoning that open border or keeping Northern Ireland inside the single market, with the province being treated differentl­y from the rest of the UK. Five years later, the recent episodes of violence on the streets of Northern Ireland have made their concerns look alarmingly prescient.

The causes of unrest are greater than Brexit. Northern Ireland is a post-conflict society with past injustices fuelling many grievances. The riots led by the loyalist gangs in recent weeks were partly stoked by the decision of the police not to prosecute nationalis­t politician­s for breaches of coronaviru­s lockdown restrictio­ns. But it is undeniable that Northern Ireland’s post-brexit status has contribute­d to disrupting the equilibriu­m that the Good Friday Agreement secured 23 years ago. The real cause for concern is that the tensions will heighten as new economic barriers emerge over time. There are currently waivers in place for east-west checks of products of animal origin, parcels and medicines. The government’s decision to unilateral­ly extend these waivers has delayed the problem, but it didn’t resolve it. New border inspection posts are yet to be built at the ports in NI; the impacts of full checks remain to be seen; and the border will harden over time as GB gradually moves away from EU single-market rules, deepening the regulatory difference­s with NI. Add to this the forthcomin­g Stormont election, and the mix is combustibl­e.

True, the situation is the unavoidabl­e price of

Britain leaving the single market while avoiding the imposition of new checks on the island of Ireland. UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, agreed to this in full knowledge of the consequenc­es. But the new reality shows the fragility of the situation and the risks that must be confronted — and not ignored.

Unionists would like to see the protocol scrapped altogether, while some in London would like to see it proven unworkable so it can be replaced with a looser arrangemen­t. But the answer is not renegotiat­ing the protocol or scrapping it; there is no credible alternativ­e to it without either the UK re-joining the single market or imposing a border on the island of Ireland. The next-best alternativ­e is a pragmatic, light-touch approach to implementi­ng the protocol to minimise its consequenc­es on the lives of people in Northern Ireland.

Any light-touch approach must deal with two issues. First, it has to reduce the biggest source of friction: onerous requiremen­ts on products of animal and plant origin and live animals. It is oten argued that, if the UK chooses to follow EU SPS rules, the problems would largely go away. But negotiatin­g this would be far from straighfor­ward; it would involve agreeing on a new treaty, with some UK participat­ion in EU agencies; a new dispute resolution process with a binding role for the European Court of Justice; and the British public accepting some public health risks be managed by Brussels, with no British input into EU decisions.

The alternativ­e is not trying to eliminate all checks and requiremen­ts, but to reduce the need for them to the greatest extent possible. British exporters of regulated goods into NI already have to meet relevant EU standards.

What London and Brussels need to agree on is a regime based on prior verificati­on of compliance for the exports intended for consumptio­n in NI, with common governance to manage any risks of onward circulatio­n into the single market. Such a regime would require the EU to agree to an NI exemption from EU rules for third-country imports, but it could be underpinne­d by a robust surveillan­ce system to provide the EU with reliable data about goods movements.

This regime would not eliminate all checks — there would still be some on live animals, nonverifie­d exporters and goods declared at risk of onward movement into the single market. But it would reduce the need for, and frequency of, physical inspection­s at the ports and airports, minimising the impacts of the Protocol on the ground in Northern Ireland and taking the heat out of the issue. There is a way to diffuse the “Brexit factor” that has contribute­d to the unrest in Northern Ireland. But pragmatism must trump politics before any further damage is done.

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