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Northern Ireland | A spectre is haunting Brexit

The spectre of Britain’s cliff-edge exit from the EU — which has loomed large almost since the June 2016 referendum — has returned, months before the country’s scheduled departure on December 31. But this is not the most significant feature of this week’s controversial legislation, which aims to override the Irish protocol to the U.K.’s EU withdrawal agreement. With the new Bill, the government seeks to overwrite parts of the withdrawal agreement, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck with his 27 counterparts last October.

The agreement had sought to avoid a hard border coming up between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic, an EU member. According to the Northern Ireland protocol, which is part of the agreement, the region is expected to follow some EU rules in trade with the Republic of Ireland. The new law, the Internal Market and Finances Bill, could override the legal force of the withdrawal agreement, which has triggered angry responses from Belfast.

The latter, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck with his 27 counterparts last October and now wants to jettison, would undo the terms of arguably the most sensitive and delicate parts of decoupling the U.K.’s 47-year relations with the EU.

When the Northern Ireland secretary informed the House of Commons that the internal market Bill was in breach of international law, the response on the continent and beyond was one of utter disbelief. The outrage it stoked was reminiscent of the fury unleashed at home in the wake of the prorogation of Parliament at about the same time last year, before it was nullified in a landmark unanimous supreme court ruling. Two of Mr. Johnson’s conservative predecessors and EU leaders, among others, have criticised the new Bill as a potential diminution of Britain’s honour and trust in the world community.

Political integrity

A precise determination of the status of Northern Ireland after Britain’s departure from the EU is most consequential at many levels. As a constituent territory of Britain, the region underpins the country’s overall identity and constitutional and political integrity. Northern Ireland’s relations with Great Britain and historical links with the Republic of Ireland to the south exert strong influence on the future of the tenuous peace that has prevailed across the island of Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday agreement. And, given the emerging geopolitical configuration after Britain’s exit, the promotion of Dublin’s interests within the EU are vital for the preservation of the centrepiece of European post-war integration, the lucrative single market. Ensuring the continuation of the existing soft border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the changed circumstances arising from Britain’s exit from the bloc is thus paramount for overall stability.

To this end, London and Brussels initially negotiated a temporary Irish backstop in 2017-18 wherein, the whole of the U.K. would continue in the EU customs union until an alternative was in place. Neither the trade-only-in-goods that this arrangement implied, nor the severe limits on concluding trade pacts with third countries was palatable for both hard Brexiters and even pro-remain politicians across parties.

So contentious were the parliamentary debates over this withdrawal deal that three versions were defeated by massive margins in the House of Commons. The prolonged political turmoil pushed Britain’s EU exit deadlines at least thrice and eventually forced former Prime Minister Theresa May to step down in June 2019.

Alternative plan

Mr. Johnson’s alternative to the backstop was the establishment of customs checks on the Irish Sea to regulate the flow of goods in and out of Great Britain from Northern Ireland and vice versa. Dublin would have the best of both worlds, being brought under dual jurisdiction of the EU and the U.K. to safeguard Britain’s constitutional integrity and sovereignty, as also that of the European single market. Following the massive majority Mr. Johnson secured in the December 2020 general election, which was evidently a vote for Brexit, any dissenting voice from Northern Ireland’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party were muted.

The government now claims it was unaware of the onerous provisions in the Irish protocol requiring close regulatory alignment with the EU when the withdrawal deal was sealed during the tumultuous atmosphere in January. Accordingly, the amendments to the protocol tabled in the internal market Bill this week seek to empower authorities to sidestep EU jurisdiction in the areas of customs and state subsidies for industries. Mr. Johnson has defended the move as necessary to protect the country from external dangers.

Although the government has refused to retract modifications to the Irish protocol, it is likely that this was an act of brinkmanship on the part of Mr. Johnson. The legislation could well be another ploy to secure relaxations on EU demands for greater access to Britain’s fisheries market. But then the present government is dominated by members who strongly back Brexit even without a deal.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2020 11:14:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/northern-ireland-a-spectre-is-haunting-brexit/article32589515.ece

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