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Twenty-five years after the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland, obtained thanks to the Good Friday agreement, it seems more fragile than ever. As an indirect consequence of Brexit, the question of the customs border between Ireland, which remained in the European Union, and Northern Ireland, which left it with the rest of the United Kingdom, upsets the institutional balance of the province, which has lived without a government for almost a year.
Northern Ireland protocol, Windsor framework agreement, sausage wars… Since the Brexit vote in 2016, Northern Ireland has once again been in the headlines. In “relative peace” since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, the level of terrorist alert there was raised to “severe” by the British services on March 28.
Tensions are indeed high in the province, deprived of government for almost a year. Police vehicles were thus targeted by firebombs during an illegal demonstration by Republicans in Londonderry on Monday April 10, the day before the arrival of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and US President Joe Biden. The two heads of state will commemorate for several days the end of the bloody conflict, which killed more than 3,500 people between 1968 and 1998.
Behind this tense situation, an indirect consequence of Brexit, which “has rekindled the tensions that existed in Northern Ireland since the signing of the agreement”, explains University Professor Aurélien Antoine, director of the Brexit Observatory.
“The balance of 1998 was always fragile, continues the researcher, but Brexit played the role of an accelerator, by deepening pre-existing difficulties in Northern Ireland.”
To guarantee peace obtained thanks to the disarmament of the Northern Irish paramilitaries and the withdrawal of British troops, the agreement of Good Friday, ratified by London and Dublin under the aegis of Washington, stipulates that Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom but that no physical border should separate it from Ireland. He also set up a bipartite government elected by proportional representation, responsible for ensuring a link between Protestant and Catholic communities.
But Brexit and the adoption of the Northern Irish Protocol in 2019 by the government of Boris Johnson have upset this fragile balance.
Compromise rejected by the Unionists
To avoid any customs barriers on Irish territory, the protocol stipulates that British goods must comply with European standards as soon as they arrive in Northern Ireland. This initial check then allows them to travel freely to Ireland and the European Union.
De facto linking the province to the single European market, the agreement thus creates a border invisible at sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – a solution considered intolerable for the unionists of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Indeed, these elected officials perceive in this customs border a dangerous distance from the United Kingdom. Fiercely opposed to the protocol, they block the functioning of local political institutions, refusing to create a government with the Republicans of Sinn Fein as long as it has not been withdrawn.
In an attempt to defuse the crisis, a new agreement, the Windsor Framework, was concluded in February 2023 between the British authorities and the European Union. If accepted by the DUP, it would ease the control of goods, which would only apply to products destined for the Irish market, and not to those remaining in Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish Parliament would also have a veto on the European standards to be applied on its territory.
What future for Northern Ireland?
But not sure that this new proposal will be enough to convince the DUP, doubts Fabrice Mourlon, professor at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Because Brexit has awakened a broader and even more complex question: that of the very future of Northern Ireland.
“Beyond the question of control of goods, the blocking of Unionists is explained by their fear of seeing Brexit lead to the reunification of Ireland, underlines the specialist. Since the implementation of the Protocol, trade between the “Ireland and Northern Ireland have increased, at the expense of those between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Unionists therefore see the Protocol as a threat to their position within the United Kingdom, and are afraid of see their province move away from it.”
Their party also lost its dominant position for the first time in the 2022 legislative elections, in favor of the Republicans of Sinn Fein. Another notable fact: a non-denominational party, the Alliance of Northern Ireland, rose to third place.
The sign, for Aurélien Antoine, that Northern Ireland has changed and that it is time to review the balance established by the Good Friday agreement in order to comply with changes in society.
“It would take a big discussion in Northern Ireland to change the Good Friday agreement, he develops. The DUP is favored by the institutional balance drawn from the agreement, while the population seems more and more concerned about the economy, and less focused on identity and religious issues. The institutional balance of power should be questioned, as should partition and the future of Northern Ireland. But this cannot be done without work substantive, conducted with Ireland and London, and we are still far from it.”
On Sunday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar nevertheless said that Dublin, London and Belfast were working to make Northern Ireland’s government institutions “operational in the coming months”.
In the meantime, the situation is detrimental to the population, which is going through the same economic crisis as the rest of the UK. In the absence of a government, no public policy can be adopted to help it deal with its difficulties, and things still seem far from unblocking.