Four and a half years after the United Kingdom referendum in which a majority voted in favour of leaving the European Union, the Brexit project is at last formally complete. Now we await the consequences. One question is whether Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will be the catalyst for the breakup of the UK. In particular, will Brexit hasten the reunification of Ireland by inducing the people of Northern Ireland to vote to leave the UK? NIxit, to coin a phrase.
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which was agreed on Christmas eve and took effect at 11 pm GMT on 31 December 2020, was the final step in the process of the UK’s leaving the EU, which it had joined 48 years before. As I mentioned in my previous article (Ireland and Brexit: the Good News), the TCA did not bring about the UK’s exit from the EU. That had already happened eleven months before, on 1 February 2020, when the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), which had been signed on 17 October 2019, came into force.
The TCA is essentially a trade deal between the EU and the UK of a kind similar to trade deals the EU has negotiated or is negotiating with numerous other non-member countries. For instance, Australia is currently negotiating a trade deal with the EU.
A part of the WA is the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). It ensures the absence of a hard border between NI and the Republic by mandating customs checks for goods entering NI from Great Britain and by requiring NI to comply with certain EU rules, including EU VAT rules, that apply to goods traded in the EU’s internal market, otherwise known as the ‘single market’.
Although de jure NI will remain part of the UK customs territory, in practice there will be a customs and regulatory border between NI and the rest of the UK. Ironically, then, Britain’s leaving the customs union and the single market of the EU has been achieved only by breaking up the customs union and the single market of the UK.
What former Prime Minister Theresa May proposed as a ‘backstop’ in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Johnson transformed into a ‘front stop’, contradicting the promise he made to the people of NI that there would be no regulatory checks and customs controls between GB and NI.
One concession is that the Northern Ireland Assembly will get to vote on the continuation of the relevant parts of the NIP in four years time, and thereafter every four years, or eight years if there is cross-community consent. As presently constituted, the assembly has a majority of members supportive of the NIP, though opposed to Brexit. However, an election is due in May 2022.
In announcing the TCA, Britain’s chief negotiator, David Frost, said that the deal restored Britain’s sovereignty in full: ‘EU law ceases to apply; the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice ends; there is no alignment with EU rules; and our Parliament sets all laws for our country once again’ Photographs of Prime Minister Boris Johnson raising his arms in triumph flashed around the world – freedom at last, sovereignty restored.
But Johnson’s euphoria was not shared by NI’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). During debate on the proposed legislation to implement the TCA, Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, told the House of Commons:
‘I have to say that today that euphoria is tinged with sadness because the deal that the Prime Minister has struck will not apply equally to all parts of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland will not enjoy all the benefits of this deal. Indeed, we will still find ourselves tied to some of the restrictions of EU membership that the rest of the United Kingdom has been freed from.’
And he instanced how NI would miss out on the UK’s new-found sovereignty as proclaimed by Frost:
‘Northern Ireland will still be subject to some EU laws made in Brussels; … those laws will be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice; and … there will be barriers to internal trade within the United Kingdom between Northern Ireland and GB, and GB and Northern Ireland.’
If restoring sovereignty was truly at the heart of Brexit project, then the excision of NI from the Brexit deal speaks volumes for the attitude of the British political establishment towards its oversea province.
Of the 361 members of the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party (to give the Tory party its official name), only two showed solidarity with their NI fellow citizens by raising in the debate the issue of NI’s exclusion and abstaining from supporting the bill. One of them, Owen Paterson, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, declared:
‘I would love to vote for the Bill today, but I really cannot vote for a measure that divides the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland will have a different tax regime and, as part of the customs union, it will be under the [European Court of Justice], the single market and so on. I am very torn. I wish this deal well, … but I will be abstaining.’
None of Labour’s 199 MPs raised the excision of NI, not even the one who voted against the bill or the 36 who abstained. Among the NI contingent, the DUP, with eight MPs, was a lone voice of protest. NI’s three other sitting MPs opposed the bill but not for the same reason as the DUP for they oppose Brexit. Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party, which is neither nationalist nor unionist, told the House:
‘We are not fans of the [NIP], but it is the product of the UK’s decisions around Brexit and the consequent need to protect the Good Friday agreement. It gives us a degree of protection and at least preserves some access to the European Union.’
While the people of NI will remain within the EU’s customs union and single market in relation to manufactured goods and food and animal products, they will be outside the EU with regard to the free movement of people, services and capital. For all UK citizens this means they will no longer be able to live, work, study and retire visa-free in EU countries, while visa-free travel will be limited to short stays. But, for the people of NI there are opportunities to access many of the EU benefits not available to their fellow UK citizens.
They will be able to avail themselves of freedom of movement within the EU by taking up Irish citizenship. Anyone born in NI before 2005 is entitled to Irish citizenship, as are those born thereafter with Irish or UK parentage. No wonder so many of them have rushed to apply for Irish passports. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the number of Irish passports issued in NI has doubled while the number of British passports issued there has declined 15 per cent.
Another exception is access to the Erasmus student-exchange programme. One of the casualties of Brexit has been the UK’s withdrawal from that programme. However, under an arrangement with the Irish government, students at NI universities will continue to participate in the scheme.
Using an Irish passport to travel freely on the continent and accessing an Irish-backed EU education programme to study there cannot help but increase a sense of Irish and European identity, particularly among the young who will be crucial to any vote on NIxit.
In Part 2 – The Economy, Stupid, I will look at the prospects for NIxit from an economic perspective.