Britain and the EU are at loggerheads over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), a provision of the Brexit deal that the two sides agreed upon after London decided to leave the bloc. Earlier this week, US officials warned Downing Street that it risks inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland if it fails to find a compromise.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has played down differences with Washington over how the current deadlock in negotiations with the European Union could affect Northern Ireland. Speaking to reporters after a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Cornwall, England, Johnson expressed confidence that London and Washington could reach an agreement on the issue, without providing further details.
“One thing we all absolutely want to do … is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure that we keep the balance of the peace process going. That’s absolutely common ground, and I’m absolutely optimistic that we can do that”, said the UK prime minister.
President Biden also did not elaborate on the talks with his counterpart. He called the meeting “very productive” and recalled the “special relationship” Britain and the United States have had.
The development comes a day after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden has “deep” concerns that London’s row with Brussels over a Brexit provision could endanger peace in Northern Ireland.
The Devil is in the Details (Brexit)
The current row between the United Kingdom and the European Union is based on the Brexit deal negotiated after London decided to leave the bloc in 2016. Parting ways with the bloc meant Britain would no longer enjoy being in the EU’s single market, which guarantees the free movement of goods, services, and labour between its members states. After years of negotiations, the sides finally struck an agreement on what their post-Brexit relationship would look like.
In order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the sides agreed that Northern Ireland should remain in the EU single market and that the bloc would conduct checks on goods on the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (England, Scotland, and Wales). Thus, everything that goes from Britain to the European Union and vice versa is being checked at this border. The agreement was dubbed the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Yet, it seems what worked perfectly on paper is working with difficulties in reality. Since the end of the transition period, there have been major disruptions of food supplies and other deliveries due to checks at the ports.
The situation was exacerbated by another row between Britain and the European Union, which began after delays of shipments of coronavirus vaccines developed by the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca to the bloc.
The Northern Ireland Knot
Between late 1960s and 1998, Northern Ireland was the scene of a violent sectarian conflict dubbed “The Troubles” that left more than 3,600 dead and 30,000 injured. One of the sides (Republicans) opposed Northern Ireland’s alliance with the United Kingdom and wanted it to join the Republic of Ireland.
The other side (Unionists) wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of UK. The conflict ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The deal was negotiated with the help of then-US President Bill Clinton.
In April, Northern Ireland saw more than 10 days of violent protests during which demonstrators clashed with police, damaged buildings, and set vehicles on fire. Almost 90 police officers were injured during the unrest, which experts say, among other things, was prompted by the botched implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Unionists are strongly opposed to the NIP, which they say threatens Northern Ireland’s membership in the United Kingdom. Former UK officials have urged Prime Minister Johnson to address the damage done by the Brexit deal to Northern Ireland, emphasising that a failure to do so will result in the collapse of the country.
However, following months of talks Britain and the European Union haven’t managed to reach a compromise. The latest round of talks between Brexit Minister Lord Frost and the vice president of the European Commission ended without a breakthrough.