PM Boris Johnson is under political pressure over a number of issues, including the UK’s response to Covid and the potential for the NHS to become overwhelmed; the looming cost of living crisis (a combination of tax rises, inflation and rising energy costs); and disquiet over allegations of sleaze and corruption that have recently bedeviled

The Background

In 1998, the UK and The Republic of Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) bringing to an end 30 years of conflict in N Ireland.  The GFA was possible at least in part because both the UK and Ireland were Member States of the EU, meaning there were no external borders to the EU or the UK in Ireland and enabling EU Law to provide a legal framework.

The GFA, strongly supported by the US and the EU, relied at its core, on mutual acceptance – S Ireland and Irish Nationalists accepted that N. Ireland was part of the UK and the UK agreed to remove physical security infrastructure on the N/S Ireland Border.

The issue of borders is at once problematic and emblematic, with the Unionist community feeling strongly that N. Ireland is part of the UK and the Nationalist community objecting to a N/S Ireland border as a physical barrier to their long-terms hopes of Irish reunification. The GFA accordingly struck a careful crafted and very delicate balance between the two communities.

Brexit…

Brexit upset that delicate balance.  The Nationalist community largely voted Remain, whilst the Unionist community largely voted Leave.  N. Ireland overall voted to remain in the EU.  The UK’s departure from the EU meant that the N/S Ireland border became not only the border between Ireland and the UK, but the only land border between the mainland UK and the EU.

To preserve the benefits of the GFA whilst protecting the EU’s Single Market, the UK and the EU agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), which preserved the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland and left N. Ireland in the UK’s Customs Union, but the EU’s Single Market – effectively placing the UK/EU border for Customs Controls in the N Sea between GB and N. Ireland for goods ‘at risk’ of entering the EU via N. Ireland. This arrangement avoided a ‘hard border’ between N and S Ireland and meant that N. Ireland was the only part of the UK to benefit from being in both Unions at the same time.

What has happened since January 2020?

The immediate consequences both of Brexit itself and the NIP are an increase in trade between N. and S. Ireland and a reduction in trade between Ireland and the UK as EU produce (inbound and outbound) has increasingly been dispatched by sea direct from S. Ireland to the European Mainland, by-passing the UK which had been used as a land-bridge for Irish exports whilst the UK was in the EU.

These two changes have raised concerns amongst the Unionist community that the longer-term impact of Brexit and of the NIP is to increase the chances of a United Ireland (the GFA allowed for the possibility of a Border Poll should communities so wish). This concern, added to the number of checks on GB/N Ireland exports, has led to a deterioration in security in N Ireland.  It is against this complicated backdrop that the EU and the UK are seeking to tweak the NIP to facilitate trade between GB and N. Ireland and reduce the number of customs checks carried out on that border.

Article 16….

Buried in the midst of the NIP is the now infamous Article 16 which states at paragraph 1 “If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade… [one side]… may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures”.  Paragraph 2 notes “If a safeguard measure taken…. in accordance with paragraph 1 creates an imbalance between the rights and obligations under this Protocol, the [other side] may take such proportionate rebalancing measures as are strictly necessary to remedy the imbalance.”

UK Complaints

The UK is concerned that the application of the NIP has imposed significant new customs formalities on GB-N. Ireland exporters, resulting in extra costs and discouraging trade.  Under the NIP, after a series of grace periods, the UK was supposed to gradually bring in checks on a broadening range of goods and products exported from GB to N. Ireland.  However, as the impact of those checks became clear, the UK took the decision to unilaterally suspend them.

Of particular concern to the UK government are:
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High-Level Content of the

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), which brought to an end three decades of inter-communal violence, also heralded the advent of 23 years of increased cross-border trade and cooperation as well as an increase in Irish exports to the UK.  That ease of access and trade was facilitated by the

The Good Friday Agreement

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