Addressing the implications for Northern Ireland and Ireland of UK withdrawal from the EU has been the most fraught, technically complex and politically divisive element of the entire Brexit process. The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland that emerged from the Brexit negotiations has therefore been contentious from the start, and even more so since it came into force on 1 January 2021.
In recognition of this, the House of Lords has established a dedicated Committee on the Protocol, as a Sub-Committee of the European Affairs Committee. Our membership, drawn from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, has a wide range of expertise in Northern Ireland affairs. While some of us support the Protocol, others of us oppose it in principle, and our conclusions are without prejudice to those positions. Yet whatever our views, we have unanimously agreed this report as demonstration of our mutual commitment to the economic, social and political wellbeing of Northern Ireland, and to the maintenance of North-South and East-West relations, and the delicate equilibrium between them, as encapsulated in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Our report sets out the economic impact of the Protocol. We find that there has been significant disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in particular because of the administrative business costs of compliance with the Protocol, creating a risk that British businesses will withdraw from the Northern Ireland market. Yet there are also potential opportunities, in terms of dual access to the UK and EU markets, North-South trade and foreign direct investment. These benefits will take time to bear fruit, and are dependent on political stability and certainty.
We assess the political and social impact of the Protocol against the backdrop of continued political instability and community unrest. While this unrest has many deep-seated causes, Brexit and the Protocol have once again brought borders and questions of identity to the fore. While unionists and loyalists object to the Protocol being imposed without their consent, nationalists and republicans point out that Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of its people. This is against the backdrop of a democratic deficit, whereby significant aspects of EU law apply to Northern Ireland without its prior consent. Public opinion in Northern Ireland on the Protocol is split down the middle, and the UK and the EU need to take urgent steps together to arrest the deepening political divide, not least by ensuring that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard both within the UK and in the EU.
Business representatives identified a host of practical and specific measures that should be taken to ease the economic burden of the Protocol. Resolving these issues is not easy, and they will not be enough to assuage those who disagree with the Protocol in principle. Nevertheless, the UK and the EU urgently need to agree practical steps that would ensure the proportionate application of the Protocol. The EU argues that a UK/EU veterinary agreement on the basis of dynamic alignment could reduce the volume of checks by up to 80%, but the UK favours an equivalence model. The UK and the EU need to find a route to compromise between their respective positions in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Yet the search for solutions has been hampered by fundamental flaws in the UK and EU’s approach: lack of clarity, transparency and readiness on the part of the UK; lack of balance, understanding and flexibility on the part of the EU. These are exacerbated by a corrosive and mutual lack of trust: on the part of the EU, that the UK is seeking to undermine the Protocol and will not live up to its political and legal commitments; and on the part of the UK, that the EU will always prioritise the integrity of the Single Market over the interests and unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. This has contributed to a serious deterioration in relations between London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels. Unless urgent steps are taken to correct this, Northern Ireland and its people will become permanent casualties in the post-Brexit landscape.
The tensions over the Protocol currently seem insoluble. Yet that was also true of the political situation in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. But through a slow and painstaking process led by political leaders in Northern Ireland and successive governments in London and Dublin, the peace process took root and flourished, leading to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent steps towards a power-sharing arrangement. This process took time, patience, dialogue, and most of all trust. The same is true in addressing the problems that Brexit and the Protocol present for Northern Ireland. There is therefore an urgent imperative for all sides to make concerted efforts to build trust by recommitting themselves to that process of dialogue, repairing the damage caused to relations across these islands during the past five years, in the interests, as the Protocol rightly acknowledges, of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.