It was one of those unexpected practices.

Leaving the west coast of Ireland and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, I took a different route back to the capital, Dublin. I passed through Northern Ireland.

Judy Dempsey

Dempsey is a non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor-in-chief of Strategic Europe.

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I had not been to this British province for many years. My memories were border checks, police checks and army vehicles. To my childhood, this part of Ireland seemed like a kind of foreign country.

During the drive that took place a few years ago, the border had disappeared. It was a strange and exciting experience, almost comparable to how the heavily guarded borders between Western and Eastern Europe gradually disappeared after the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

In the case of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the Invisible Borders are the product of a painstakingly negotiated peace deal between the British and Irish governments, with the United States playing a major role, supported by the ‘European Union.

The April 1998 Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, aimed to end sectarian violence between trade unionists who want to stay in the UK and nationalists who aspire to a united Ireland . In practice, alongside a timetable for decommissioning weapons on both sides and putting in place means to reconcile the two communities, the province has achieved a certain degree of autonomy.

Over time, the physical borders have been dismantled. What a godsend for commerce, commuters, visitors and animals to cross these seamless borders. What a boon for the confidence and the hope that peace and reconciliation will eventually take root.

But now those same agreements could be threatened in a way that could undermine the stability and fragile peace of the province. The repercussions cannot be underestimated. Unionists and nationalists could exploit political uncertainty and economic problems. There have already been incidents of sporadic violence.

One of the main reasons for the unrest in the province is that the British government wants to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol. This protocol was agreed between the UK and the EU after Britain voted to exit the bloc in June 2016, finally leaving in January 2020.

The main purpose of the protocol was to prevent the reestablishment of a hard border between the non-EU province and the EU’s Republic of Ireland, which would undermine the peace agreements. Thus, an exception was made for the whole island of Ireland.

As part of this exception, the EU insisted that customs checks be carried out between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Goods arriving in the province could then go unchecked to the rest of the island. There would be no hard border.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the minister who negotiated the arrangements, David Frost, are now rejecting the protocol. They are under pressure from trade unionists in Northern Ireland who say they are discriminated against by being forced to agree to customs checks between Britain and the province. They also fear that these controls will weaken their ties with Britain.

The reality is that the province is part of the UK customs union but also part of the EU customs union due to the fact that there is no border between the province and the Republic of Ireland. Controls between Britain and the province have been introduced to protect the integrity of the EU’s customs union, the internal market with the Republic of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.

Johnson wants to rewrite the protocol, which is an internationally binding treaty, and he wants the role of the European Court of Justice, which oversees single market rules, to be removed. It is a red line for Brussels.

The British Prime Minister wants the controls and authorizations required by European law to be reduced or even removed in order to create a seamless trade link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Relations between London and Brussels have deteriorated to such an extent that some member states, frustrated by London’s rollback, want to introduce targeted reprisals. This could include imposing trade tariffs on UK exports if London abandons the protocol.

To avoid any escalation of tensions, the European Commission, the EU executive, recently presented new measures to reduce the number of permits, red tape and the goods to be checked when entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

But that might not be enough for the Johnson government.

Britain faces shortages in stores. Much of this is due to Brexit, which excluded the UK from the EU’s free movement of people system. This has left the country with a shortage of truck drivers to deliver supplies, staff to care for the sick and the elderly, and people to pick fruit and work in low-paying jobs. Brussels is an easy scapegoat for these misfortunes.

Finding a compromise between London and Brussels will be tricky. At stake for the EU is the integrity of the internal market, the integrity of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the confidence the people of Northern Ireland have in the Good Friday Agreement.

As for Britain, maybe it’s time to recognize the price of Brexit and the price of an Ireland without hard borders.


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