In Northern Ireland, a Knotty Brexit Problem Is on the Brink of Being Solved


Almost two years of political gridlock. Decision-making paralyzed. Rising tension in a place where peace remains fragile even after the end of decades of sectarian strife.

There are few places where the impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union been felt more sharply than in Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday there were rising hopes that one of Brexit’s most poisoned legacies has been eased — at least for now — by a new plan that should bring the territory’s political parties back into government.

In a dry, 76-page document published on Wednesday — coincidentally the four-year anniversary of Brexit coming into effect — the British government laid out the details of the deal it has struck with the Democratic Unionist Party, or D.U.P., to end its boycott of the power-sharing assembly in Belfast.

Crucially, the government said it would reduce checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, addressing the biggest source of tension within the D.U.P., whose mainly Protestant supporters want to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Unionists had argued that the post-Brexit imposition of customs checks on goods arriving by sea from Britain had driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

On Wednesday the British government addressed this fear head on, naming the document in which it unveiled the deal “Safeguarding the Union” and saying that the package of measures it had agreed to with the D.U.P. — including guarantees of the territory’s constitutional place within the U.K. and £3.3 billion in financial sweeteners — would “reassert and strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and its internal market.”

After months of talks, and a late-night meeting of the D.U.P.’s executive committee that ran into Tuesday morning, the combined proposals, along with rising public pressure within Northern Ireland, seemed to have been enough to persuade the party to return to government after almost two years.

Assuming there is no last minute hold up, Northern Ireland’s assembly in Stormont, just outside Belfast, could be up and running by the weekend, paving the way for a seismic moment in which the territory’s top leadership role will for the first time be held by Sinn Fein, after it emerged as the largest party in Northern Ireland’s 2022 election.

“It is a very big moment,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast, noting that the D.U.P. has agreed to again share power with Sinn Fein which mainly represents nationalist voters and is committed to the one thing that is anathema to all unionists: a united Ireland.

The British government had, Professor Hayward said, offered some relaxation of the trade arrangements that the D.U.P. had campaigned so hard against. But because Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains a member of the European Union, challenges would remain, she said, adding: “Navigating the fallout of Brexit will always be more difficult for Northern Ireland.”

The sight of elected representatives again sitting in Stormont will relieve many voters after two years in which civil servants have kept the basic functions of government going but have been unable to make bigger decisions.

Waiting times for health care procedures in the territory are lengthy, public-sector workers have been denied pay increases they would otherwise have received and strikers recently took to the streets in a huge protest.

Yet the origins of the political crisis underscore the destabilizing effect of Brexit in the territory and the extent to which even prosaic issues such as the terms of trade can hold huge symbolic importance in a place still reckoning with a history of bloody sectarian strife.

There were profound reasons not to resurrect a visible land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. During the years of violence known as the Troubles, frontier check points were targeted by paramilitary groups. Those border points melted away after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which ended most of the violence — and no one wanted them back.

So, after Brexit the solution was to keep Northern Ireland in the European Union’s economic market for goods, allowing trucks to flow freely across the land border with Ireland.

But since Britain was quitting the European bloc, checks on cargo had to take place somewhere and, to the anger of the unionist community, that meant controls on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland — creating an invisible border in the Irish Sea.

Last year Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, struck a new deal with the European Union, known as the Windsor Framework Agreement. That won some concessions from Brussels to reduce those checks, but they were insufficient for the D.U.P. and its leader Jeffrey Donaldson.

That Mr. Donaldson has changed his mind may reflect the deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland caused by the political gridlock, and the imminence of a general election in Britain, which Mr. Sunak has said will likely be held in the fall.

“I think the motivation is electoral, and the D.U.P. needs some window dressing and something to climb out of this situation,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. He said that the party would have started “hemorrhaging support if there were strikes on the scale of recent weeks and if it became common for nurses to quit their jobs to work in supermarkets because they couldn’t be given pay rises.”

Professor Hayward’s theory is that the D.U.P. wanted some time in government to help spend the extra £3.3 billion from London before the election, in order to maximize its vote.

Mild mannered and pragmatic, Mr. Donaldson has taken a risk in returning to the assembly because some senior members of his party opposed the move. So divisive was the issue that, during a five-hour internal meeting to discuss it on Monday night, details of the conversation were leaked and posted live on social media.

Mr. Donaldson on Wednesday defended the deal, saying that it achieved his objectives, while conceding that he had compromised. “Is it perfect? No, it isn’t. Have we delivered everything we would have wanted at this stage? No, we haven’t,” he said.

His critics will now pore over the details of the published document to see whether it measures up to what he promised.

To some extent the D.U.P. has been caught in a trap of its own making. In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum it campaigned to leave the European Union, although a majority of voters in Northern Ireland ultimately voted to stay.

The return of a functioning government to Northern Ireland will be a welcome success for Mr. Sunak, who has been battling to control his restive Conservative Party against a backdrop of persistently poor polling numbers.

“Credit to Rishi Sunak, he delivered where others haven’t,” Mr. Donaldson said on Wednesday. Yet while the prime minister may have finally cut one of the Gordian knots created by Brexit, there was a reminder that some of its wider consequences are only beginning to be felt, as new controls on food, plant and animal imports to Britain from the European Union went into effect on Wednesday.

Cut flowers, fruit, vegetables and meat coming from the E.U. will now require health certificates, with further physical checks required from April. The introduction of the border controls have already been delayed five times by the government, and industry groups warn they could cause delays and push up costs.

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