NIAS Europe Monitor

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NIAS Europe Monitor
Post Brexit: Three challenges in Northern Ireland

  Padmashree Anandhan

Domestic power-sharing, Irish backstop, and people’s stance are likely to remain primary challenges for the UK.

Recent developments
On 3 February, the First Minister of Northern Ireland Paul Givan from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) resigned objecting to the trade protocol signed during Brexit. The resignation comes opposing the EU checks in the Irish Sea on the goods transported from the UK. He said: “They have been impacted by the agreement made by the United Kingdom government and the European Union, which created the Northern Ireland Protocol.” 
The situation arose due to the party’s Agricultural Minister stopping the inspection of goods coming from the UK, subject to checking as per the protocol. The DUP has been against the Northern Ireland protocol since it was signed; the party views the protocol as compromising its position. Because of the protocol, the DUP has to meet the rules of the EU at the border checkpoints.
According to the power-sharing system in Northern Ireland, the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill (who belongs to the Nationalist Party Sinn Fein) will, by default have to give up her leadership. The leader of both parties called for elections to prevent political instability.
Three challenges in Northern Ireland: Domestic power-sharing, Irish backstop, and people’s stance
First, the problem of power-sharing. In Northern Ireland, the First Minister must be from the Democratic Unionist party and the Deputy First Minister from the nationalist party. This arrangement serves as the base of the political chaos in the region. The polls for the upcoming elections 2022, indicate the pro-Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein taking over the DUP, threatening the DUP’s position as the First Minister. On the other side, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has constantly threatened to devolve the government over the Brexit Protocol, and the leader has resigned now. Unless both parties sign an agreement, political stability will remain.

Second, the Irish backstop or Northern Ireland Protocol. The problem between the UK and the EU is another challenge in establishing peace in the region. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal of the Irish backstop aimed at avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland but at the cost of the UK coming under EU customs territory. Until an open border is attained, the UK will not vary its tariff rates and follow the single market regulation even after Brexit. The backstop triggered debate and arguments. Later, the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed the Northern Ireland Protocol. Under the protocol, both the UK and the EU agreed to keep the UK outside the economic bounds of the EU. Instead, it was decided to install checkpoints on goods entering from the UK. The agreement brought peace only to the powers outside (the UK and the EU), but the DUP did not accept the deal.

Third, the people’s stance. In terms of economy and standard of life, the Irish backstop allowed the people of Northern Ireland to connect for trade and job opportunities with the rest of Ireland, the UK, and the EU market. The relations between the DUP and the UK have been strained since the 2019 Protocol. The handling of the domestic issues is biased regarding the sectarian killings and divide, which still persists in the region at various levels. The UK has failed to address this; under the Good Friday Agreement 1998, a provision was given where the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can change with the future polls from the people. With the worsening living conditions of the Irish, a protest is expected to call for a united Ireland poll.
To conclude, the major actors in the Northern Ireland issue have been the UK, the EU, pro-British unionists, and pro-Irish nationalists who have been conflicting over their exercise of power. While the Unionists want to maintain their political links and economic trade with the UK, the nationalists aim to unite Ireland under the EU. In the case of the UK, its objective is to ensure the Good Friday Agreement is followed, which will lead to the separation of Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. However, the EU, which aims to achieve an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, failed to play a dominant role in convincing the UK to sign the Northern Ireland Protocol. 
Brexit has not taken place within Northern Ireland. The UK still has not let go of its interest in being engaged in the region's politics, economy, and people. Northern Ireland is the major importer of UK goods, which is beneficial for the UK’s economy. Still, its ties with the DUP and the party’s bad governance keep the Northern Island from uniting with Ireland. It should either direct the DUP towards good governance or, as per the Good Friday agreement, it must recognize the majority of people voting for a united Ireland.

Therefore, to install peace, economic and political stability in the region. The protocol needs to be re-visited by both the UK and the EU to redraw the framework with the objective toward uniting Ireland rather than separating powers.

About the author
Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Assistant at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Her areas of interest include Western Europe and Maritime Studies.

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