After the Brexit Protocol: Northern Ireland Plagued By More Instability

Mark Devenport | 17 June 2021

Stormont, Robert Young, CC-BY-2.0

The summer of 2021 should have been a time of celebration for Northern Ireland’s unionists marking the centenary of the partition of Ireland, which maintained their British identity by carving out a six county state in the north east of the island.

Instead it has been a time of anxiety, not just over the pandemic, but also about the perceived erosion of that British identity with the development of a new economic border down the Irish Sea. In an unintended but potent bit of symbolism, the introduction of regulatory checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland coincided with the hundredth anniversary of the creation of the contentious land frontier which still divides Northern Ireland from the 26 counties of the Irish Republic. The emergence of a sea border, on the eve of Northern Ireland’s historic milestone, stirred fears about the future which are never buried far beneath the unionist psyche. 

That anxiety manifested itself in serious street disturbances in loyalist districts of Belfast in the spring of 2021, then a coup within Northern Ireland’s biggest party, the Democratic Unionists. The putsch saw the Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots supplant Arlene Foster as the DUP leader. It was driven by a number of factors – not least the dynastic history of the party founded by Ian Paisley, which appears to be an increasingly uneasy coalition between its traditional evangelical Protestant supporters and more socially liberal new arrivals.

Poots is an avowed Paisleyite, whilst Foster now says she sometimes found herself having to “defend the indefensible” in the interests of party unity. The pretext for the putsch was Foster’s failure to join the evangelicals in opposing a ban on controversial so-called “gay conversion therapy”. However whilst differences over moral matters may have played a role, a wider fear amongst DUP politicians that they could pay an electoral price for mismanaging the consequences of Brexit undoubtedly spurred the coup plotters into action.

After initially reacting with cold fury to her sudden removal, Foster has decided to embrace the opportunities afforded by a life beyond parochial Northern Ireland politics. She won a £125,000 payout in a high profile defamation case over a baseless slur perpetrated against her via Twitter. Foster is leaving the DUP, but intends to campaign on issues like the role of women in public life and the need for tighter regulation of social media. She might do that from the House of Lords, should Boris Johnson see fit to offer her a peerage.

Foster finished her time in office hosting a British Irish summit in her native Fermanagh, and felt relaxed enough about her fate to treat reporters to a quick burst of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, noting that she had been riding high as First Minister in April, but then had been, as the song goes, “shot down in May”.

The impromptu recital made the headlines in Northern Ireland, but the international media’s attention focussed on another summit – the gathering of the G7 in Cornwall. In Boris Johnson’s playbook, this gathering in sunny south west England should have been a showcase for post Brexit “Global Britain” demonstrating its commitment to tackling international issues like climate change and tax avoidance by multinational corporations.

Instead, an enormous amount of time was dominated in the margins of the summit by arguments over Northern Ireland, with EU leaders accusing the UK of reneging on their deal over the Irish sea economic border and the proudly Irish American US President Joe Biden making clear his concern about the impact the dispute could have on the settlement reached under the Good Friday Agreement.

Boris Johnson and his ministers retorted by accusing both the Europeans and Americans of misunderstanding the sensitivities surrounding the controversial protocol which mandates the trade checks. The UK argument is that overly rigorous application of the rules governing trade across the Irish Sea will deprive consumers in Northern Ireland of basic economic choices and risk further inflaming unionist and loyalist political anger over being treated differently from other British citizens. The EU and Irish nationalist response is that Boris Johnson signed the protocol and should have thought through the consequences before rushing to “get Brexit done”.

The stand off between both sides was illustrated by an exchange between Boris Johnson and the French President at the G7 in which the Prime Minister asked Emmanuel Macron how he would feel if he could not send sausages from Paris to Toulouse. Macron reportedly responded that this was not a fair analogy as Northern Ireland is not part of the same territory.

Was Macron making a political or geographical point? If the former, he was incorrect, if the latter, then Johnson would have been better using an offshore French region like Corsica as his example. Either way, the speed with which Downing Street sources disseminated the Macron comment which the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described as an “offensive”,  illustrated the lack of trust regarding the disputed protocol. Rather than feeling moved to apologise, Macron doubled down, telling Johnson ”you cannot blame the EU for your own incoherence”.

Throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles and the subsequent peace process, the EU remained a low key but important international player, providing billions of Euros in financial support via its “Peace Programme” and “Interreg” cross border grants. So the appearance of the EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic on loyalist banners (alongside US Irish and British political leaders) is something of a new departure. Despite some historic unionist scepticism, the  EU had, by and large, been accepted as a neutral benefactor. Now loyalists and unionists portray it as a partisan force, content to see Northern Ireland pushed inexorably into the economic ambit of the Irish Republic.

That portrayal, of course, is not shared by Irish nationalists or centre ground politicians who regard the protocol as a necessary, if imperfect, safeguard against the erection of any new infrastructure on the land frontier with the Irish Republic, which many feared could lead to negative economic and security repercussions.  

Given the current focus on loyalist unease, it’s worth recalling that, in 2016, 56% of the Northern Ireland population voted to remain in the EU. Not all of them back the protocol (many unionists who voted to remain did so precisely because they wanted to avoid the unpalatable choices which they believed could flow from Brexit), but the majority probably prefer it to new north south trade barriers.   

Assuming the protocol remains in place in some form or other, the Northern Ireland public will get a chance to pass their democratic verdict on it at the next Assembly election. Due in 2022, this election could end up being – at least in part – a referendum on the EU UK protocol. That’s because two years later – in 2024 – Assembly members will get a vital vote on whether or not  they consent to the continuation of the protocol’s key elements, which govern trade across the Irish Sea. 

The new DUP leadership has urged voters to return a majority of unionist members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) in order to vote the protocol down. However this seems a big ask – unionism lost its majority at Stormont back in 2017. Unless there is a reversal in the recent growth of centre ground parties such as Alliance and the Greens, it seems likely these mostly EU-friendly politicians will hold the future of the protocol in their hands.

Whilst European leaders have been involved in high level controversy over the future of Northern Ireland trade, EU agencies continue to play a constructive and less contentious role on the ground.  Despite Brexit, EU funding is still being provided for a range of projects from a women’s centre on the loyalist Shankill Road in Belfast to a forest trail in the County Tyrone village of Pomeroy. A consultation has just closed on a tranche of around one billion euros in funding for what is known as the “Peace Plus” programme, which will continue until 2027, distributing cash from the EU, British and Irish exchequers.

In addition, the Irish government has confirmed it will fund the continued participation of third level students from Northern Ireland in the Erasmus educational exchange scheme, at an annual cost of around two million euros. From September, students enrolled at Belfast’s Queen’s University and Ulster University and local FE colleges should have a choice between taking advantage of the EU exchange programme or  the UK’s new Turing scheme, although this does not extend to the thousands of Northern Ireland students attending institutions in Great Britain.

The future of the EU/UK protocol may be the overarching issue concentrating minds in Brussels, Dublin, London and Stormont. However the departure of Arlene Foster as First Minister focused attention on other sources of instability, principally pre-existing differences between unionists and nationalists over cultural matters.

A deal involving new legislation, providing extra rights for Irish language speakers and Ulster Scots enthusiasts, was part of the January 2020 New Decade New Approach deal which revitalised power sharing in Northern Ireland after a long period without a devolved executive. But the implementation of that deal was held up – as was much else – by the need to focus on tackling the Covid 19 pandemic.

Under the Stormont system, the DUP could not simply replace its First Minister on its own. Its principal partner in power, Sinn Fein, also had to cooperate by reappointing its northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, as Deputy First Minister. Once Foster confirmed her resignation, Sinn Fein specifically linked its cooperation in the process to the immediate introduction of the promised Irish language legislation. It accused the new DUP leader Edwin Poots of acting in bad faith, and suggested the only way forward would be for the Westminster government to step in and pass the law through parliament, rather than via Stormont. 

A stand off between the two main parties threatened to prevent the formation of a new devolved government, with potentially negative consequences for future decision making regarding the Covid regulations and Stormont’s other pressing priorities. 

However with the deadline looming for yet another collapse of power sharing, the U.K. government accepted Sinn Féin’s request indicating it would take the language law forward through Westminster by October if no progress was made at Stormont. At the time of writing, that seemed enough to resolve the stand off, averting an early Stormont election Nevertheless the language row underlined the acute lack of trust between the key players at a time when Northern Ireland needs to restore some stability both on the streets and within its corridors of power. 

Mark Devenport | Twitter

Mark Devenport is a journalist and broadcaster analysing Stormont politics, Brexit, the response to Covid-19, British-Irish relations and conflict resolution. He was the BBC’s Northern Ireland Political Editor, Ireland Correspondent and United Nations Correspondent and is a former chair of the Stormont Correspondents’ Association.