Brexit was never going to be easy, and should not compromise the Good Friday agreement
The British government’s demand to renegotiate parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement with the EU has set the stage for another round of clashes between London and Brussels. Just seven months after the agreement came into force, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government now says the Protocol, which was accepted by both sides to avoid physical and economic barriers between Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, hampers trade inside the U.K. When the Brexit agreement was signed in 2020, Mr. Johnson agreed to set up checks at the British side for goods entering Northern Ireland. This meant, in order to avoid an economic barrier between the two Irelands, Britain effectively set up one between the British mainland and the Island of Ireland. The decision had economic and political repercussions, affecting British traders every time they move goods across the Irish Sea. Within Northern Ireland, the Irish nationalists who support unification are in favour of the Protocol, while the unionists, including the Democratic Unionist Party that was once an ally of Mr. Johnson, do not want it. In a difficult economic and political situation now, Mr. Johnson’s conservative government is seeking a way out.
The government wants all customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland to be removed. It has also sought to end the role of EU institutions in enforcing the Protocol and introduce a dual regulatory system that would allow products to freely circulate in the province if they comply with either British or EU standards. But the problem is that this is part of an agreement which Mr. Johnson signed in 2020, and welcomed. The EU has said it remained open to “practical, flexible solutions” to the controversial clauses. Many had warned even before the 2016 Brexit vote that Northern Ireland would be a thorny issue if the U.K. chose to leave the EU, given Ireland’s violent history. The economic integration and soft borders between the two Irelands were one of the key aspects of the 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought peace to the island after 30 years of Troubles. Now Mr. Johnson, a Brexit supporter, is caught in a difficult situation, thanks to Brexit. For London, continuing with the protocol will have economic and political consequences. If the U.K. moves the customs checks to the border between the two Irelands, it can upset the peace agreement. In the event of the absence of an agreement, either party can suspend the Protocol using Article 16, which means the crisis would be back to square one. Both sides should realise the seriousness of the situation and be ready for talks. Any amends to the Protocol should not compromise on the conditions that guarantee peace in the island of Ireland.