Brexit has many consequences, some good, some bad. The UK is now free to strike independent trade deals. However this freedom comes at a cost – it endangers its territorial integrity. Since the beginning of Brexit negotiations, the question of the Irish border has loomed large. In 2020 after years of wrangling, both sides agreed to establish border checks separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, in the hope of preventing the reoccurrence of unrest that plagued the region before signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
By imposing border checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the UK both sides averted the creation of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. To everyone’s dismay, the arrangement quickly proved to be unsustainable – riots incited by the Unionists in Belfast and the hurdles imposed on businesses trading with the rest of the UK show how difficult it is to achieve a lasting settlement. In light of mounting economic and security issues, the British government has leaned towards reneging on the agreement signed with the EU. So far, it limited itself to extending the grace period for companies selling goods to Norther Ireland in defiance of the agreement reached with the EU. By extending the grace period, the government postponed the introduction of border checks on goods shipped between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The European Commission filed a complaint because this action violates the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol. But the reaction of the EU is not the only concern of the UK. On top of these obstacles, President Biden announced that a trade deal with the UK would be contingent on the UK’s adherence to the Belfast Agreement.
This development adds yet another variable to an already precarious situation. The Unionists in Northern Ireland reject the creation of broader check on the Irish Sea stipulated by the agreement the UK signed with the EU. If the British government decided to withdraw from the agreement unilaterally, it would endanger the existing trading relations with the EU and scupper the efforts to deepen economic ties with the US. Since 2016 a free trade deal with the US has been the cornerstone of the post-Brexit trade strategy. The US is the UK’s largest trading partner accounting for 16.3% of British trade. Moreover, the US runs a trade deficit with the UK worth £51.9 billion in 2019. British negotiators hoped to sign a new trade deal could be the end of 2020. It did not come to pass due to disagreements over the food standards and drug prices. Now the persistence of divisions in the territory presages to derail the negotiation indefinitely due.
In the 1920s the Unionists were adamantly against proposals to grant the status of a dominion to entire Ireland. They remained resolute to defend their belongingness to the UK in the late 1960s when the Troubles begun. Now the border on the Irish Sea threatens to reignite old tensions. There is a danger that the outbreaks of violence in April were only a foretaste of what is yet to come. Surveys trying to ascertain the extent of support for reunification produce very discrepant results. Yet they all show that there are two consistently large groups – one supports unification and the other opposes it. In the past neither hesitated to resort to violence. Consequently, the British government has precious little wiggle room – decisions perceived to favour one group will provoke the other.
It would have been possible to preserve an open border between the Republic and its northern neighbour without any checks on the Irish Sea had the UK agreed to remain in the European Single Market. But such a choice would have forced the UK to align itself with European regulations with no say in the process of drafting them. A more limited alignment in terms of veterinarian standards that could reduce the number of trade restrictions between the UK and Northern Ireland was also rejected by the British government. By adopting the European standards, the UK could undermine its chances for a comprehensive trade deal with the US.
Every decision concerning the physical border will inevitably upset the delicate balance in the territory. And its repercussions can significantly reduce British options for expanding its trading network. It shows that from the perspective of British negotiators the question of Northern Ireland is a part of a larger picture. In the foreseeable future, the conflicting demands of the Nationalist and the Unionists may force the British government to take a less equivocal stance and commit itself either to enforcing the border checks on the Irish Sea or brave the international pressure and establish a hard border with the EU between the Irish Republic and the British territory. Either way, something will have to be sacrificed to untangle this web.
The Editor: Kamil Kozlowski
Kamil Kozlowski is a MA student in International Political Economy at King’s College London (KCL). In 2020 he graduated from Kozminski University with a Bachelor’s degree in Management. His research interests are focused on the future of the British economy, especially the development of new sectors in it. Another field close to his heart is the evolution of the global energy market and its implications for regional economic growth.