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The case for

Northern Ireland

Sectarian riots in Belfast in April. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Brexit is back in the headlines, and the crunch point is Northern Ireland.

What’s going on?
When Boris Johnson pulled Britain out of the EU, he in effect left Northern Ireland behind, mostly to avoid having to build a big wall between Northern Ireland and its EU neighbour, the Republic of Ireland. Brexit negotiators agreed the “Northern Ireland protocol”: the north would remain in the EU’s single market so goods could travel around the island of Ireland with no extra form-filling, border checks or inspections.

What’s the problem?
Because the rest of the UK is now firmly outside the single market, anything travelling across the Irish Sea is subject to “thousands upon thousands of customs declarations, health checks and regulatory authorisations, where before there were none”, says Juliet Samuel in the Telegraph. Many Brits are unhappy about having to ask the EU’s permission to send goods to someone who also lives in the UK. So negotiators have gone back to the drawing board.

What is the EU willing to do about it?
A lot, as it turns out. “We completely turned our rules upside down and inside out,” says the European Commission’s Vice-President, Maros Sefcovic. Specifically, it has vastly reduced the amount of red tape normally required to bring, say, meat or medicines into the single market – an 80% cut in form-filling, by the EU’s estimate. It has also suggested a sneaky workaround to the “sausage wars”, a row over the ban on chilled British bangers being shipped to Northern Ireland because they don’t meet the single market’s food standards. EU negotiators have suggested designating certain sausages “national identity goods”, meaning they are of “special resonance” to Northern Irelanders and thus exempt from the wider EU import ban.

Has that helped?
Yes, says Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. But the concessions Brussels has made distract from the real issue, which Boris and Brexit czar Lord Frost are rightly insisting on – that it’s intolerable for part of the UK to be “governed by foreigners”. EU bureaucrats are still insisting on the “outrageous” idea that Northern Ireland – because it is still in the single market – will be subject to the whims of the European Court of Justice. Just last week the EU’s ambassador to Britain, Joao Vale de Almeida, said: “When you play football, you need the referee; the referee of the single market is the European Court of Justice.” But when you play football, says Hannan, the referee doesn’t usually “double up as one of the team captains”.

So how do things stand now?
“Is there a problem with the Northern Irish protocol? Yes, there is,” Boris Johnson told Bloomberg this week. “But we’ll fix that. I don’t think that’s going to be the end of the world.” Yet for all the PM’s boosterism, no amount of jiggery-pokery can solve the “insoluble conundrum” that a hard Brexit requires a hard border somewhere between the UK and Ireland, says Martin Fletcher in The New Statesman. And the border cannot be on the island of Ireland, because this would “seriously undermine” the delicate peace that has prevailed since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) put an end to three decades of devastating sectarian violence.

The “imperfect but hard-fought” agreement, guaranteed by the US, got gunmen on both sides to put down their weapons through “compromise and grinding attention to detail”, says Martin Ivens in Bloomberg. The Catholic south agreed to give up its constitutional claim over the Protestant north and London promised that if the Northern Irish ever voted to leave the UK, that was their right. In the meantime, Irish nationalists and UK unionists would share power in Belfast and the border with the south would stay open. Any sign of a land border on the island of Ireland would invite a resurgence of republican terrorism and infringe a key tenet of the GFA.

What could happen if it goes wrong?
The real danger is destabilising Northern Ireland. April saw riots by unionist extremists, furious at the idea of a border between them and the rest of the UK. They hurled iron bars, bricks and petrol bombs at police, leaving 90 officers injured. And let’s not forget, says Juliet Samuel, that Irish politicians pop up all the time talking about reunification. Former PM Leo Varadkar declared this year that a united Ireland “can happen in my lifetime”.

What does Washington think?
When Johnson visited the White House last month, an aide passed President Biden a note to remind him to raise the issue. “We’ve already talked about that,” Biden snapped back. In recent days, unprompted, he has been asking staff for updates, says Mark Landler in The New York Times. He has made it clear to Johnson that he will not tolerate any funny business that might jeopardise the peace protocols outlined in the GFA. “I feel very strongly about those,” Biden told reporters. “We spent an enormous amount of time and effort in the United States. It was a major bipartisan effort.”

Why does Biden feel so strongly?
Partly because of deep family connections – his ancestors were seaweed farmers off the coast of Co Louth, hawking rotten kelp as fertiliser for eight shillings a hundredweight (yes, really). But Biden, like many other US politicians, also invokes Northern Ireland because it fires up Irish-American voters. After all, it’s not so long ago that the IRA could openly hand round the collection hat in Boston pubs. Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, however, agree that the president isn’t messing around. “Biden doesn’t bear Boris Johnson any grudge,” says Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. But he “cares deeply about the Good Friday Agreement, and unilaterally pulling the plug on the protocol… could materially affect the relationship in a negative way”. That isn’t going to make Boris’s dreams of a “global Britain” any easier to realise.