After nearly two years of ugly in-fighting over the Northern Ireland Protocol, there has been a sudden outbreak of positivity from key players in London, Dublin, and Brussels about the possibility of a deal to amend or replace it. Even self-styled “Brexit hard man” Steve Baker, now a UK government minister in the Northern Ireland Office, told Tory conference-goers he was “sorry” his behaviour had weakened Anglo-Irish relations. He later asserted to BBC Radio Ulster his willingness “to eat a bit of humble pie” to achieve a deal.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a device to ensure no customs checks are needed on Ireland’s land border after Brexit. It does so by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market for goods, although not for services, and creating intra-UK customs checks between the region and Great Britain. Changes to EU regulations on goods will automatically apply in Northern Ireland. This means, for example, this week’s EU ban on Apple using proprietary charging ports in its devices will extend to the region even if they remain permitted in Great Britain.
Unionist politicians of all stripes, including those who had been strong Remain supporters, worry the Protocol is a conveyor-belt to a slow economic divorce with Great Britain. The largest Unionist party, the populist-Right DUP, is refusing to enter government unless it is replaced, which means that under Northern Ireland’s complex system of power-sharing, a government can’t be formed at all.
Yet, overall, elections to Northern Ireland’s Assembly in May saw pro-Protocol parties emerge with a comfortable 53-37 majority. We may be seeing the emergence of a second political cleavage in the region. As well as its traditional ethno-sectarian division between British Protestants and Irish Nationalist Catholics, a new Remain-Leave division is being cemented by the continued disputes about the border and the Protocol.
A key sliver of pro-UK voters has sided with Nationalist parties on the Protocol and other constitutionally charged EU-related issues. Some are pro-EU progressives; others are more conservative business types for whom an open border is a pragmatic necessity. These voters powered the staunchly pro-EU and cross-community Alliance Party to its best ever Assembly result in May, while Sinn Féin become the region’s largest party for the first time ever.
With no government likely to be formed before a 24 October deadline, however, a bleak midwinter re-vote is likely. Nobody expects to see more than a handful of seats change hands. Northern Ireland’s political culture tends towards deadlock that is only ever broken by painfully slow negotiations. Thus, the warmer mood from outside is particularly welcome.
Although real gaps remain to be bridged, most parties have an interest in a deal being done. Above all, it would remove the risk of a UK-EU trade war erupting during a winter where it would be of primary benefit to Vladimir Putin. More subtly, it would be of assistance to both London and Brussels in the war of values, hard evidence that free democracies are better than autocrats at finding solutions in messy territorial and ethnic disputes. An agreed and flourishing post-Brexit Ulster would be a fine counter-blast to the hell Moscow has made of the Donbas.
Within Northern Ireland, it would give Unionist parties space to navigate an electorate where allegiances have suddenly become more complex. Only Sinn Féin, with real prospects of becoming the largest party on both sides of the border after an election due in the Republic by early 2025, can afford a Sphinx-like equanimity, comfortable in its ability to advance its agenda with or without a deal.