UK-EU Trade Talks: A Whimsical Withdrawal risks Northern Ireland

Abby Wallace, Contributor

The Internal Market Bill is currently working its way through the Parliamentary circuit at Westminster, despite EU threats of taking legal action against the UK if ‘controversial’ clauses are not withdrawn. Global Vision UK/ Will Flower

A potential Government withdraw from the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, as agreed in 2019, is another blow for NI

The news, from last month, that the Conservative Government has tried to backtrack on the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement is unsurprising for a bill which attempts to break international law.  It is Infuriating, but not entirely surprising. I n Northern Ireland the bill, which undercuts perhaps the most essential component of the Withdrawal Agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol, comes as the most recent instalment in a carefree Conservative attitude to the country, its security and the people who live there.

It is easy to see that Northern Ireland has been the greatest sticking point in the Brexit negotiations.  The 56% who voted to remain in the EU in the June 2016 Referendum is only a numerical indicator of the situational factors upon which this majority was based.  It is more complicated than Northern Ireland simply being ‘pro-EU.’

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, upon which a peaceful Northern Ireland now rests, was responsible for ending four decades of violence and ensuring a new generation were able to grow up in a society defined by co-operation.  It is to this day, the greatest manifestation of the ability of the people of Northern Ireland, despite their differences, to work together and it allowed me to grow up in a society very different from the one in which my parents did.  A carefully constructed consensus, part of it rested on cross-border cooperation, including free travel and trade across a border once symbolically, and necessarily, appropriated by military checkpoints.

It was inevitable then that a pro-EU vote would take on a greater dimension in Northern Ireland, a vote which is indicative of a large proportion of the population who take solace in the opportunities spearheaded in the Good Friday Agreement. This includes agricultural workers, who, according to the NI Assembly, make up over 70,000 of the workforce, relying on free travel and transportation of resources. On a more empathetic level, families and communities  broken up by the nearly 500km long, haphazardly planted border are able to seamlessly meld together in a way that would not have been possible over two decades ago; a way that would not be possible  if the border was ‘hardened’ in the future.  The reality in Northern Ireland is that even if you don’t live on the border, and your income isn’t dependent on its inherent invisibility, you are directly impacted by the Good Friday Agreement by way of living in a society defined by co-existing rather than conflicting ideologies.  In Northern Ireland, the vote was more than one to defend or achieve greater economic opportunity or security, it was one to maintain a peaceful status-quo which once seemed like a long time coming.

The Withdrawal Agreement had rendered a compromise, ensuring, through the Northern Ireland Protocol, that some sense of status-quo would remain; an open border, no customs or security checks, freedom of movement.

Abby Wallace

And most recently Westminster has, once again, rashly brought Northern Ireland back into the political and psychological battle ground.  The Withdrawal Agreement had rendered a compromise, ensuring, through the Northern Ireland Protocol, that some sense of status-quo would remain; an open border, no customs or security checks, freedom of movement.  As far as the Northern Ireland issue was concerned, the Conservatives, to hesitantly but ironically quote them, had essentially got Brexit done.

The decision to backtrack on this subverts years of Brexit negotiations.  Yet for Northern Ireland this undermines something much bigger – decades of struggle.  However “limited” a breach of international law as the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, claims it is apparent that trust has been eroded between the UK and the EU as they have entered a further tug-of-war in which Northern Ireland is once again, unwittingly, at the centre.

This rash decision is not entirely surprising and is only a further indicator of the priority Northern Ireland takes at Westminster.  Arguably, the Government has shown a complete sense of disrespect and lack of attention to the relative security and peace Northern Ireland enjoys.  The Withdrawal Agreement was the best guardian of a continuation of that stability.  For the Conservative clique it was a means to grab the ticket which secured their overwhelming election victory in December 2019.  

While there is no good time to launch such an insolent political bombshell, amid the Covid-19 crisis, while small businesses, which according to a survey by Queen’s University Belfast, made up 19.7% of the workforce in 2018, are relying on trade picking up, the fact that Ireland is the largest export ‘receiver’ outside of the UK, just adds to the climate of anxiety already brewing.  Perhaps more tragically, the fact that the decision comes less than two months after the passing of John Hume, a pioneer of peace in Northern Ireland, seems like a thoughtless feat on behalf of the Conservative Government.

Pre-pandemic ‘protocol’: Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen meeting at 10 Downing Street in January 2020. PA

So where exactly does Northern Ireland stand amidst this chaos?

What we cannot forget, and indeed what it is hard to forget, is that Brexit happens in Westminster; its initiation, the negotiations this side of the deadlock, its characteristically rash political decision making of which Northern Ireland once again assumes the role of collateral damage.  

Since all parties who represent Northern Ireland in the House of Commons make up less than 3% of the total number of seats (and even less if we exclude the abstentionist Sinn Féin members) it is unlikely that they will hold much leverage in the debating of the Internal Market Bill.  The bill passed its substantive second reading in the Commons on 14th September.  This, coupled with Conservative insistence on protecting the Good Friday Agreement, while introducing a bill which so starkly undermines any rigorous attempts to preserve it, functions as a critical warning sign for any potential unilateral policy towards Northern Ireland.

How the negotiating process will pan out remains to be seen.  However, in stark contrast to 1998, where policy was carefully debated and respected between the negotiators, internal and external, the course of the relations Northern Ireland will take in relation to the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU rests predominantly with forces external to it, negotiating powerhouses in London and Brussels.  A link which I hope is maintained is Northern Ireland being the central subject of both debates.  What lies on the negotiating table now is non-negotiable, the security of Northern Ireland.  It must come first.

Editorial note

With reference to the current negotiations between the UK and EU sides, on October 3rd, both the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen issued a Joint Statement stressing that progress between the two sides had been achieved. Both leaders explained that “significant gaps” between the two negotiating teams remained, on the familiar areas of fishing rights, access to the UK’s territorial waters, future governance arrangements for potential dispute resolution and the “level playing field.” Peter Donnelly, Editor.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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