A deep dive into the Irish Sea border issue

A poster reading “No Irish Sea border” is seen in the port of Larne, Northern Ireland, June 20, 2022. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne//File Photo

By Ciara Mclaverty

April 10 marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, yet tensions in Northern Ireland have been well and truly rekindled over new developments regarding the Brexit Deal. Brexit negotiations have been delayed for over two years now, the European Union and the British Prime Minister(s) struggling to find a satisfactory agreement around the issue of the Irish Sea Border. Procedures that were supposed to set up the break-up terms of the United Kingdom with the Union are still not over yet, mainly because establishing an EU border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland proved to be unattainable. So, why can’t we get Brexit done?

A short history of Northern Ireland

The sensitive history of Northern Ireland makes it seriously challenging for the negotiators to find an agreement on its status. Ulster, another name for Northern Ireland, was separated from the Republic of Ireland and integrated into the United Kingdom over a century ago. However, it does not mean that the political stability in the region was ideal since its formal incorporation to the UK.  It was during the Seventies that the world started hearing about Northern Ireland as a result of the violent political and religious tensions over the status of the region; a period that was known as ‘The Troubles’. The conflict opposed Unionists (also called Loyalists) that were ardent partisans of Ulster being part of the UK to Irish Nationalists, whose objective was primarily to achieve the unification of the island in one sole state: Ireland.

The resolution of the conflict was far from simple as Northern Ireland and the UK struggled with violent protests, hunger strikes carried out by prisoners, and deadly terrorist attacks coming from both sides. It was on April 10th 1998 that peace was finally negotiated: the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) was signed. As of today, Northern Ireland is officially part of the United Kingdom and the situation evolved towards further peace than back in the seventies in Belfast. However, Brexit bringing the region out of the European Union also meant for many Irish that the United Kingdom was taking NI away from the rest of Ireland once again.

2016 Brexit votes

When we discuss the place of Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations, it is crucial to go back in time. We have to keep in mind that when the Brexit vote happened in 2016, the results for Ulster consisted of this: 55.78% of voters chose to remain in the EU, against 44% that wanted to leave. These results clearly tell us that the process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union is happening against Northern Ireland’s will (not to mention Scottish voters that also aspired to stay within the EU).

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The Northern Ireland Protocol was a specific arrangement in the context of Brexit negotiations adopted in January 2021. The novelty was to introduce new checks for goods, this time not at the Irish border but in Northern Irish ports directly. The issue was that on one hand Unionists (those who identify themselves first as British) claimed that these particular checks established an effective border between Ulster and the rest of the UK. On the other hand, the Irish Nationalists expressed themselves against a hard border in Ireland arguing it would not respect the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

At the time of the Troubles, a hard border was set up between the North and the South of Ireland to prevent terrorism. A physical border would be for most Irish people a painful reminder of their past, when there was a true ‘no man’s land’ with barbed wires and when cars were systematically being searched by Police or Military forces. That is why introducing a physical border to check goods would revive tensions in the area. 

Introducing the Windsor Framework 

The British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen finally agreed on a new deal last February, reducing the quantity of checks on goods. The aim of his new deal was first and foremost to protect the Belfast Agreement by passing reforms that all sides would agree on: the United Kingdom, Domestic parties for Northern Ireland and the European Union. Essentially, the Windsor Framework established two distinct paths for goods: the Green Lane would involve only goods that would stay in Northern Ireland, meaning no checks nor additional paperwork needed. The other side of the coin is the Red Lane, concerning products that might this time enter the European market (through the Republic of Ireland), with checks to operate.

Source: BBC

What about the Stormont Brake?

In addition to the Windsor Framework, a new legal instrument to give more power to the politicians in Northern Ireland was offered: the Stormont Brake. Stormont refers to the Northern Irish Parliament in Belfast, that at the moment holds limited influence thanks to devolution (the delegation of power from the British Parliament to national assemblies). This ‘Stormont Brake’ consists of a veto power from the Northern Irish Parliament to disagree to some rules related to Brexit. Indeed, it would help Northern Ireland prevent European laws or rules on the single market to be put into practice if members of the Assembly judge that it would endanger the territory.   

DUP Disagreement

So, the question now is why are Brexit negotiations not over at this point? The remaining problem is the DUP boycott of power sharing. DUP stands for the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. The party has been boycotting the next developments of the Brexit deal; namely the Windsor framework. That-is-to-say that the DUP considers the last Brexit deal unacceptable because of the place it would give to NI (Northern Ireland) within the UK. The boycott happened due to two factors. The first one being the Stormont Brake because it is a “mechanism that would allow unionists to object to the imposition of new EU trade law” and  because it “would be unavailable if the assembly remained paralysed.” The second factor of interest concerns the power sharing part. It means that “the prolonged absence of Stormont would not result in direct rule from London as it did before power sharing in the region. There is an understanding that Ireland would have a greater role, which would be anathema to unionists.”.

Political Instability Today

The seventies were without a doubt a troubled period for people in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, political instability does not only belong to the past in this unique country. In reality, there are still existing threats today, and “MI5 recently raised the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland to severe, meaning an attack is highly likely.”

In this context, let us hope that the British government, the DUP and the European Union finally reach a consensus that will protect the interests of each party, especially to safeguard the peace in Northern Ireland.