Attempts at Northern Ireland deal uncovers UK politics’ troubles
Two years after the UK and the European Union agreed on the Northern Ireland protocol, the issue of the UK’s eastern nation is back on the negotiation table. The protocol, negotiated by Boris Johnson’s government, was designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, fearing that the opposite would stoke violence. However, this requirement forced the agreement of checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, creating a trade border inside the UK and angering many in Northern Ireland. The protocol has managed to maintain trade between the two Ireland’s stable, yet, trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has been strongly affected by the enforced checks, angering many unionists in the North.
In response to the many criticisms of the original protocol, Westminster and the European Union have been in negotiations, hoping to reach a deal. According to the latest information from the negotiations, the deal would involve a model separating goods destined for Northern Ireland, from goods heading towards either Great Britain, or the EU’s single market. Goods coming from Great Britain, headed towards the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU, would be subject to full checks according to EU regulation, while goods destined for Northern Ireland would only be subject to light checks. The EU’s acceptance of this relies on the relative inexistence of evidence that there are illicit goods entering the EU’s common market.
Nevertheless, there remain significant challenges regarding the technical aspects of trade in the potential deal. The UK’s government has been keen on reducing the amount of documents required to ship a good from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, considered excessive and a burden; however, the EU seems to only be willing to reduce the amount of information required on those documents, not the number of documents themselves. Food and agricultural products have also been a point of tension between the two parties in the negotiation. The EU has heavy requirements in terms of information, documents and bureaucracy regarding this specific type of goods, which has caused issues for Northern Irish businesses. In addition to these concerns, many are worried that this new deal would mean Northern Ireland would lack power to influence the legislation valid within their borders, with many calling this a democratic deficit.
Northern Ireland Political Complications
The Northern Irish political context has further complicated the negotiations. The DUP, a unionist political party in Northern Ireland, has blocked the devolved assembly by refusing to vote for a new speaker. A new election has been ruled out by Westminster until 2024.
The DUP has maintained that any agreement between the EU and the UK, without the consent of the party, would mean the continued boycott of the Northern Irish devolved assembly. Previously, the DUP’s only main demand was the end of the “Irish sea border”, meaning the trade proposal discussed between the EU and UK would fit with the party’s criteria. Yet, the DUP’s current demands now include issues of EU jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, including the jurisdictions of the European Court of Justice and the EU single market in the territory.
Many among the DUP have warned that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is on the table with this negotiation. Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, warned that a requirement for Northern Ireland to comply with EU regulation would force the two sides of the UK to drift apart.
The DUP lacks the incentive to drop their demands. The Traditionalist Unionist Voice’, a hardline unionist party, has backed the DUP in their actions to block the Northern Irish party, therefore any withdrawal would mean backlash. In the last election, the DUP lost 6.7% of the vote share compared to the previous election, in which the Traditional Unionist Voice increased theirs by 5.1%. The DUP also has very little incentive to enter government with Sinn Fein as leader, the left-wing republican party.
Even with the DUP’s approval of a potential deal, the party has warned that they would not lift their boycott in the immediate aftermath, citing that “implementation is the key”.
Divisions in Westminster
There has been significant disunity among Conservative party members and MPs over the issue. Suella Braverman and Boris Johnson, among others, have hinted or stated their opposition to abandoning the Northern Ireland protocol, with many worried that the government is actively picking the EU over certain parts of the country. Several Conservative MPs have considered DUP support for the deal essential to the process.
The abandonment of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is another point of contention. Simon Clarke, a Conservative MP, has warned that abandoning the bill would ditch the possible leverage the UK could gain in negotiations. The bill proposed would allow ministers of the UK government to override certain parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a move that raised voices across the channel.
The UK government has no legal obligation to submit a potential deal to an MP vote, however, there has been significant pressure from Conservative MPs for one. Labour leader Keir Starmer has said that the Labour party would support a deal if it came to vote in the House of Commons, allowing the government the possibility not to rely on a select number of Conservative MPs. Nevertheless, several Conservative party members have warned that, if this were to be the case, Prime Minister Sunak would lose control of his own party, potentially throwing the UK into a political crisis.