315.The Preamble to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland acknowledges that “the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the [European] Union presents a significant and unique challenge to the island of Ireland”; that “the achievements, benefits and commitments of the peace process will remain of paramount importance to peace, stability and reconciliation there”; that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements “should be protected in all its parts”; and that there should be “no customs and regulatory checks or controls and related physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”. But it also stresses “the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”, and that “the application of this Protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland”.
316.The UK and the EU were able to agree these underlying principles in theory: the difficulty has come in upholding seemingly contradictory principles, as the Protocol has become a reality. The upshot has been economic disruption and further political division, which has contributed to community unrest. This has undermined the advantages of dual access to the UK and EU markets that the negotiators sought to preserve. It has also led in turn to a breakdown in trust between London, Brussels, Belfast and Dublin.
317.Technical solutions to ease some of the burden of the Protocol’s practical operation can be found, as long as there is goodwill and flexibility on all sides. Yet addressing the issues of conflicting identity that first Brexit, and then the Protocol, have brought to the fore seems for the moment an insoluble problem. 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.
318.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.
“The peace process … continues to be a tender plant that needs to be carefully looked after by all who have been involved in it—locally, nationally and internationally … The way forward … is to create a new ground of engagement. That is not primarily [about] the Protocol … It is not even about the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The ground of engagement needs to be something that all parties can buy in to, and that is the peace process.”
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