Northern Ireland’s 30 years of ‘Troubles’ were brought to an end by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (the GFA). The GFA was based on the principle of cross-community support from both nationalists and unionists: a delicate compromise which sought a middle path between the Unionists – who see N Ireland as an integral part of the UK – and the Nationalists – who view the future of N Ireland as lying in reunification with the Republic.
The success of the GFA was underpinned by the fact that both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were in the EU. Whilst both countries were members of the EU, there was no need for a border between N Ireland the Republic – goods and services could flow unimpeded across the border. Leaving the EU required a bespoke solution to N Ireland – one that respected the GFA and did not reimpose a physical border between N Ireland and the Republic: a visible manifestation of a divided island.
Squaring the circle of respecting the GFA, whilst taking the UK as a whole out of the EU, was always the most complicated part of Brexit. With the UK outside the EU, a customs border would be required somewhere: it could not be between N Ireland and the Republic, because of the need to respect the GFA and avoid antagonizing the Nationalist community. The only place that border could be therefore, was in the Irish Sea between N Ireland and the rest of GB – which risked irritating the Unionist community.
The Northern Ireland Protocol
The solution to this delicate balancing act was the Northern Ireland Protocol (the NIP), which left N Ireland in the EU Single Market, but brought it out of the Customs Union, enabling N Ireland to have the best of both worlds, with one foot in the UK and the other in the EU. However, the NIP imposed checks on goods (especially food and medicine) from GB arriving into N Ireland, to ensure they complied with EU standards and avoid the risk of them leaking into the EU Single Market through the back door: these checks have so far been unilaterally postponed by the UK.
Elections add to the complexity…