5 January 2021

Will losing Northern Ireland be the price we pay for Brexit?


Four and a half years after the Brexit referendum, it’s almost impossible not to feel relief that Britain has finally left the EU with a free trade agreement. Some critics have reservations, particularly where fishing and the service industries are concerned, but many of the staunchest Brexiteers say it puts the UK in charge of its own affairs, while Remainers concede that a close trading relationship with the EU is better than ‘No Deal’.

Boris Johnson and his government argue, with some justification, that they have achieved something their opponents said was impossible. Britain has retained tariff and quota free access to the single market, while being released from the EU’s political control and federalist ambitions.

Unfortunately, these achievements do not extend to the entire United Kingdom.

Like his predecessor, Theresa May, the prime minister reached an agreement with Brussels by doing what he previously promised he would never do. He left part of the country behind, subject to EU rules and cut off from the Great British internal market, with a significant economic border now dividing the United Kingdom.

While the rest of the nation enjoyed a much needed ‘feel good’ moment at the end of 2020, unionists in Northern Ireland found themselves again cast in the unenviable role of ‘party poopers’. When the DUP voted against the trade deal in the House of Commons, Raoul Ruparel, Theresa May’s former special adviser on Europe, tweeted that the party had now opposed, “every form of Brexit possible”.

He was right that Arlene Foster’s party has gone from “kingmakers to irrelevant” at Westminster, offering “a lesson in how not to do politics”. He was manifestly wrong to imply that its mistake was not to accept May’s ‘backstop’ during the third ‘meaningful vote’ on a Brexit deal. That plan included the potential to cut Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK even more completely than Boris’s deal.

Where the DUP showed spectacular naivety was in believing the Government’s assurances that Ulster would leave the EU on the same terms as Great Britain, while two prime ministers repeatedly signed up to commitments that seemed to contradict this promise. The party eventually accepted Boris’s plan to keep the province aligned with single market regulations, on the understanding that he would never contemplate a customs border between the mainland and Northern Ireland. Eventually, though, even that red line was scrubbed out in pursuit of a deal.

It is the Northern Ireland protocol and not the free trade agreement per se that the DUP and other Ulster unionists oppose. On Sunday morning, Arlene Foster told Andrew Marr, rather unconvincingly, that Brexit still offers the province a ‘gateway of opportunity’ to flourish economically. Her party cannot openly support an Irish Sea border, but it does not want to admit that it contributed to a disastrous outcome for Northern Ireland.

The new deal means that Northern Irish businesses will not have to pay up-front tariffs when they buy goods deemed ‘at risk’ of entering the EU. Under the protocol, though, hauliers still face an array of complicated new paperwork and processes to keep goods moving into Northern Ireland from the mainland.

The big supermarkets have a three month ‘grace period’ to get used to the rules, but soon they will have to provide thousands of pounds worth of health certificates for each container of groceries arriving in Northern Ireland. Checks on food products will take place at newly constructed border posts at the province’s ports.

Michael Gove boasted recently that the “Great British banger” will continue to be shipped to “Belfast and Ballymena” after negotiations with the “sausage king of Brussels”, Maros Šefčovič. This diplomatic ‘triumph’, though, only covers the next six months. After that, British products like sausages, minced meat and certain ready meals will be banned in Northern Ireland, unless the EU gives fresh permission. The UK government must negotiate with Brussels for the right to send goods into part of its territory and that’s a position it will get used to in the years to come.

Many courier companies have already suspended services into Northern Ireland or introduced exorbitant new fees to send parcels there. The province’s secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, insists these price rises are unjustified, because NI remains “an integral part of the UK customs union”. But another hastily announced ‘grace period’, during which online retailers will not have to complete customs declarations to send goods to Ulster, runs out in April. Some companies, like John Lewis and the homeware retailer Dunelm, have stopped delivering products to customers in Northern Ireland, for the time being at least.

Businesses are resourceful and, no doubt, many services will be reintroduced after a temporary suspension. Some clever entrepreneurs may even find opportunities to make money from the predicament in which Northern Ireland finds itself. For the province’s consumers, though, higher prices, more inconvenience and missing products and services are almost certainly something they will become used to.

The constitutional and political consequences of Northern Ireland’s estrangement from the UK’s internal market could be more serious still. When businesses adjust their supply lines in response to the new arrangements, they are likely to look south to Dublin and the Irish republic. For decades, nationalists talked up the importance of the ‘all-island economy’ to their aspiration of ‘uniting’ Ireland. That relationship remained largely an illusion, because Northern Ireland relied primarily upon trade with Great Britain, but the protocol may well change that.

Many of the rules and regulations that govern Northern Ireland’s economy will continue to be determined by the EU. And in the absence of direct political representation in Brussels, Dublin will become the region’s natural conduit to Europe’s decision-makers. Unionists were already worried that Northern Ireland’s political frame of reference was being shifted away from the United Kingdom toward the Republic of Ireland, in defiance of the Belfast Agreement, and their fears are likely to become more acute.

When Britain voted to leave the EU back in 2016, Irish nationalists immediately saw an opportunity to detach Northern Ireland from the UK, by arguing that the province should have a ‘special status’ within the EU. Influential figures in Brussels, it has been claimed, warned that Northern Ireland would be ‘the price’ that Britain paid for Brexit. Neither group could have foreseen how completely and spectacularly the UK would capitulate to their plans to encroach on its territory.

In the coming years, we will see whether Britain really can prosper by freeing itself from the EU’s constraints and trading with the rest of the world. We will also learn whether our leaders are resolute enough to stand up to separatists who wish to destroy the UK. They could start by trying to repair the damage that has already been done to their country’s integrity by the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.