The Northern Ireland Protocol has been one of the main headaches caused by Brexit on both sides of the English Channel. And it is that in the midst of a divorce that dates back to the 2016 referendum, the special condition of this small constituent nation of the United Kingdom could not be more complicated, since it also shares an island with the Republic of Ireland. Hence, it received a special status as a result of the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EUand while England, Scotland and Wales no longer follow community group rules, Northern Ireland still does, sharing a land border with Ireland, which is part of the Twenty-seven.
But this border between the two countries cannot be hard, physical, since that would clash with the peace agreement signed almost 25 years ago that put an end to three bloody decades in the region. Hence, it was agreed that customs controls would be carried out on goods entering Northern Ireland from other parts of the United Kingdom, a measure that for unionists meant, de facto, the establishment of a border in the Irish Sea, which , in their view, undermines Northern Ireland’s place within the union. The opposition is not just ideological: the special status caused problems and disruptions in supply chains from the start and the DUP unionists refused to form a government with the winning party Sinn Fein in the elections in protest of the move.
An agreement that takes into account the demands of all parties is not only necessary but also urgent, especially in a region that at the moment is politically headless, but until now it has been impossible to reach it. And that’s where it comes in Prime Minister Rishi Sunakwhose rise to power is still fresh and who traveled to Northern Ireland this Friday to speed up the negotiations, which according to EU and British government officials are close to concluding with a satisfactory deal.
The ‘premier’ met with the political parties, with special emphasis on the DUP, which refuses to participate in the power-sharing government that has functioned as a safeguard for peace since the 1990s. “Clearly, this is a great moment,” he opined. Jeffrey Donaldsonleader of the unionists, who added that “the next generation of Northern Ireland and its people demand that we all, collectively, do our best, in particular the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission, to solve these problems and get to a place where political institutions can be restored.”
All the parties have participated in long conversations over the last few months to try to resolve the squaring of the circle, that is, to implement changes in the operation of the protocol that allow solutions to the two most conflictive areas: the movement of goods and the mechanism for resolve disputes, with emphasis on the role of the European Court of Justice, the final arbiter of EU law and to which the UK, once outside the EU, does not want to submit.
Change of tone
And although there are still many obstacles to overcome, the visit of the ‘premier’ caused a change of tone that has been evaluated as positive. Ulster Unionist leader, Doug Beattie, opined that the prime minister was “enthusiastic, committed and positive” and also the president of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou McDonald, said that she believed that “very significant progress has been made”, and some voices already set a date for the announcement of the expected agreement in the coming days, such as the Irish “taoiseach”, Leo Varadkar, who asserted that although “we have not yet reached” an agreement, he was “quietly sure” that it could be closed in the next fifteen days. “I think a lot of progress has been made. We are not there yet, but certainly a lot of trust has been built between the European Commission and Ireland and the British government,” he told reporters in Limerick.
This Saturday, Sunak will meet with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen during the Munich Security Conference, and according to ‘The Times’, if all goes well, he could present the final text of the agreement to his ministers on Tuesday.