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Divisions deepen over Northern Ireland as UK moves to change trade rules

The U.K. and EU are headed for yet another summer of negotiations over the nature of the post-Brexit agreement in Northern Ireland, with unionists threatening to collapse the territory’s institutions for good unless a solution is found. But amid high-stakes posturing, there is no breakthrough on the horizon.

LONDON (CN) — The British government has unveiled fresh legislation that would override key parts of the post-Brexit trade treaty it signed with the European Union just over two years ago, in a bold move that has provoked the ire of European leaders.

Teeing up yet another round of brinkmanship with the EU, the British government argues that if they cannot negotiate a solution to the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, which has caused consternation among the territory's unionist community for imposing customs checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, then it is prepared to take unilateral action to end the arrangement.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain had a “necessity to act” if a negotiated solution could not be found. But Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney slammed the British approach, saying it would “send headlines around the world that Britain is prepared to break international law.”

The Northern Ireland protocol was the end result of tireless negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom throughout 2018 and 2019. It sought to craft a post-Brexit arrangement which respected the requirements of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, an international treaty that brought an end to conflict in Northern Ireland.

The peace agreement states that there can be no physical border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. But after Brexit, the U.K. was determined to exit the EU regulatory sphere, leaving the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a de facto internal customs border.

The Irish Sea border is anathema to much of the unionist community who seek to maintain close ties with Britain, and the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, has collapsed Northern Ireland’s delicate power-sharing institutions, pledging not to restore governance until the protocol is scrapped.

Speaking last week, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said “decisive action” was needed on the protocol. He added that if the British government and EU were “serious about protecting the political institutions, and the Belfast Agreement, and its successor agreements, and the basis of political progress and stability in Northern Ireland, then they know what they need to do.”

“Power sharing can only be restored on the basis of consensus,” he added. “There is not unionist consent for this protocol.”

Mary Lou McDonald, leader of pro-Irish unity party Sinn Féin – which won a historic victory in this month’s Northern Ireland elections – spoke with exasperation after the DUP vetoed the restoration of governance. “The British government is playing a game of brinkmanship with the European institutions, indulging a section of political unionism … which believes it can hold society to ransom,” McDonald said.

“The notion that in the mother of all parliaments, as it boasts, that there would be attempt to legislate, to break international law, is shocking, it is breathtaking, and we find ourselves astounded that members of the House of Commons would even countenance such a proposal," he said.

Northern Ireland’s first minister-elect, Michelle O’Neill, agreed, adding, “What Boris Johnson is promising the DUP is nonsense, and is madness.”

Announcing the draft legislation in Parliament on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss publicly outlined the government’s proposals for the first time.

The primary British idea is to implement separate “green” and “red” channels for goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The “red” goods are those identified as continuing on to the Republic of Ireland, thus entering the EU, and so would be subject to the same checks as presently. But the “green” goods would be those that are remaining in Northern Ireland, not entering the EU, and thus would not be subject to checks.

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The plan has already been proposed to, and largely rejected by, the European Commission, the EU's executive body. The EU leaders argue that relying on what is essentially a self-regulatory scheme to uphold the integrity of European customs arrangements is unworkable. The commission's vice president, Maroš Šefčovič, hit out at the U.K.’s tack towards legislation, saying “unilateral actions contradicting an international agreement are not acceptable.”

“Should the U.K. decide to move ahead with a bill disapplying constitutive elements of the protocol as announced today by the U.K. government, the EU will need to respond with all measures at its disposal," he said. His comments have raised fears that Europe would react by introducing punishing tariffs, initiating a costly and ill-timed trade war.

Making the announcement, Truss said, “Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU. However, to respond to the very grave and serious situation In Northern Ireland, we are clear there is a necessity to act to ensure the institutions can be restored as soon as possible.”

“This is not about scrapping the protocol, our aim is to deliver on the protocol’s objectives,” she added.

Opposition minister Stephen Doughty criticized the government for moving to change a treaty it negotiated and signed itself. Doughty said “the government is trying to convince people its flagship achievement was not a negotiation triumph but a deal so flawed that they cannot abide by it. Either they did not understand their own agreement, they were not upfront about the reality of it, or they intended to break it all along.”

“The prime minister negotiated this deal, signed it, ran an election campaign on it. He must take responsibility for it, and make it work," Doughty said.

Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson pauses as he speaks to the media at the Parliament Buildings in Belfast on May 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)

But it is not just in Dublin and Brussels that British threats have been met with consternation: they have also alarmed and frustrated the Biden administration. The United States government is a key guarantor to the Belfast Agreement and has sent a bipartisan delegation, led by Biden ally Senator Richard Neal, to Europe to negotiate with all parties. In a blunt statement released on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that if the U.K. takes unilateral action, “Congress cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement with the United Kingdom."

The motivation behind the British brinkmanship is at least threefold. Firstly, the U.K. government has a responsibility to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, in order to maintain the delicate peace and prevent the situation on the ground from deteriorating into sectarianism. But in order to do so, the DUP needs an off-ramp from the corner it has backed itself into.

Having sought to reassert its standing among the unionist community by making the protocol a do-or-die issue, the party is in need of something to present to its constituents. A hard-ball attitude taken by the British government may well help to soften the impact of any potential reengagement in talks to restore power sharing in the future.

Secondly, the issue has become wrapped up in leadership jostling within the U.K.’s governing Conservative Party. Truss, the British foreign minister, is known to be gunning for the top job, and seeks to boost her chances among the Tory rank-and-file by emulating Thatcherite qualities of belligerence and single-mindedness. Her approach has led to accusations from her own side of inflexibility in talks, which has only served to harden the EU position.

In addition, a showdown with Europe has repeatedly proved a vote winner for the Conservatives in the past, and will be a welcome distraction for a party tanking in the polls at home after a drawn-out political scandal over lockdown parties has all but destroyed the reputation of its formerly popular leader, Johnson.

But if the British government is doubling down on Brexit, then the DUP is tripling down on it. With the unionist vote splintering and young unionists unenthused by the party’s brand of social conservatism, the DUP has become particularly reliant on Brexit to maintain an electoral appeal.

The party is reportedly hoping that possible fresh elections later in the year may see the unionist vote galvanized behind its candidates, after being spooked by the emergence of a nationalist first minister-elect. But it is equally likely that the DUP’s position will further galvanize the nationalist vote behind rival Sinn Féin and boost support for Irish reunification. Thus, it is a high stakes and polarizing gamble.

The question remains as to why the DUP – which has already been brutally betrayed by Johnson once, when the protocol was initially agreed to against its will – would trust the very same government to get it out of its latest crisis.

In a major intervention on Friday, the Irish government hardened its position on the DUP’s approach. Speaking in Belfast, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said, “It is unheard of in a democratic world that parliament would not convene in the aftermath of an election. We can’t have a situation where one political party determines that the other political parties can’t convene.”

The complexity of Northern Ireland’s politics was difficult enough to manage before the U.K. voted to leave the EU. But trying to pull Northern Ireland cleanly out of the bloc is essentially an impossible task under current constitutional arrangements. It is likely in the short-term that the only route through is some kind of regulatory fudge. But in the long term the age-old questions remain, and sticking plasters eventually have to come off.

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