How Northern Ireland is complicating Biden’s European agenda

“Brexit happened, and the United Kingdom formally left the European Union. But the UK and EU are still arguing over the deal they both signed on the status of Northern Ireland.

When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it created the tricky issue of what to do about the land border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is an independent country and part of the EU).

It is no ordinary border. During the decades of bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, that border was heavily militarized, and it served as both a symbol of the strife and a very real target for nationalist paramilitary groups.

A critical part of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace process that ended the Troubles, involved increasing cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That meant softening the border between the two. As a result, the 310-mile border is practically invisible and completely free from checks and physical infrastructure today.

But once the UK and EU split up, that would become the only land border between the UK and Europe. And with the two sides following different trade rules (that was one of the main points of Brexit), there would need to be some kind of checks put back in place to regulate the goods crossing the border.

So you see the problem: Not having any checkpoints or physical border is seen as critical to maintaining the peace. But the UK’s departure from the EU (and its trading rules) made some sort of customs check necessary.

The UK and the EU ultimately coalesced around a plan that carved out a special status for Northern Ireland. It would leave with the UK but follow many of the EU’s rules, thus keeping that land border open. To achieve this, certain goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain would require checks, just in case they ended up in the EU’s single market. This put a customs border in the Irish Sea — effectively, within the UK.”

“In March, a set of grace periods expired for some provisions, and at the time, the UK just unilaterally extended those deadlines. The EU reminded the UK that, this being a treaty and all, the UK couldn’t just act alone, and so sued them for breaking international law.

Now another set of grace periods is expiring at the end of the month, including a provision related to chilled meats, such as sausages. The UK now needs to start conducting regulatory checks on any chilled meats coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain. If the UK doesn’t do them, it would effectively prevent Great Britain from selling its own sausages in Northern Ireland, since those, in theory, might be at risk of entering Ireland, which could mean illicit sausages in the EU single market.

The sausage dilemma is really just the latest fracture between the EU and UK. The EU thinks Boris Johnson’s government isn’t an honest broker and is likely to renege on the protocol once again.

“It’s not about sausages per se, it really is about the fact that an agreement had been entered into, not too long ago,” Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Micheál Martin said. “If there’s consistent, unilateral deviation from that agreement, that clearly undermines the broader relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which is in nobody’s interest.”

Johnson, meanwhile, says he’s defending the territorial and economic integrity of the UK. His government has accused the EU of failing to do anything to minimize the trade frictions, which may leave them no choice but to get rid of the deal entirely. The problem, of course, is that Johnson himself signed up to the rules that he no longer seems to like very much.”

“the protocol has revived tensions in Northern Ireland itself, specifically among the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

The unionists reject any division between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (i.e., they support the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland), and some feel, not totally incorrectly, that they were shunted aside in the Brexit deal. Some unionists are urging the UK to scrap the deal entirely. Northern Ireland saw unrest back in the spring, and there are fears over renewed violence, especially as “marching season” reaches its peak on July 12, when loyalists — extreme unionists — engage in parades and demonstrations.”

“The “sausage wars” may sound silly, but Biden will struggle to create this coalition of democracies to serve as a counterweight to authoritarianism if the EU-UK divorce keeps getting in the way. And it’s just a lot harder to sell the vision that the US and its partners are the ones to trust over China when key members of that group are backing out of agreements or engaging in a trade war.”

Northern Ireland is in the midst of its heaviest unrest in years. Here’s why.

“A great deal of the initial violence came after state prosecutors decided last month they would not charge the leaders of nationalist party Sinn Fein for breaking Covid-19 regulations in June by attending the funeral for Bobby Storey. Storey was a former top member of the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary group that waged a violent campaign against the British and for a reunified Ireland during the Troubles

Many unionists perceived the decision to not prosecute the members of the party as a sign of political favoritism, given that unionists were told to cancel their traditional Twelfth of July parades last summer, and the loaded symbolism surrounding the funeral. The decision sparked outrage and protests.”

“another major factor fueling the anger and protests is the way that many in Northern Ireland feel betrayed by the terms of Brexit — the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union — which was completed at the beginning of this year. Some unionists feel blindsided by the British government, which they believe has left them in the lurch”

“Another complicating factor is that the period around the Easter holiday often features “increased communal conflict,” Politico notes, because of Irish Republican Army commemorations among nationalists in Northern Ireland on the one side and unionist parades on the other.
Further complications may be coming from criminal groups who might be trying to add to the chaos and exploit tensions over Covid-19 restrictions in order to cause problems for law enforcement.

There’s a complex array of factors that could explain what’s contributing to the current chaos — and given that swirl, it could evolve further in the future.”