The will of the people is clear: the Irish border must remain fully open and Westminster can get stuffed

Customs Post, Strabane 1968
Tom Coburg

Brexiteers are fond of saying how the ‘will of the people’ is paramount – unless, that is, the people are Irish. Right now, negotiations between the UK and the EU for a post-Brexit trade deal are going down to the wire. But a no-deal Brexit, or a deal that incorporates the terms of the Internal Market Bill, should it be enacted, will impact upon trade between the north of Ireland and the Irish Republic. The consequent changes in trade relations will mean the Irish border would no longer be fully open.

“Illegal”

Dublin has made it clear that it, and other EU member states, will block any UK-EU trade deal should the Internal Market Bill become law. Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney commented:

there’s no way the EU will agree to ratify a new agreement if the British government is breaking the existing agreement that is not 12 months old and breaking international law by doing that.

But why would the internal market legislation pose a threat to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), an international treaty signed between Ireland and the UK in 1998. Or conflict with the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, signed off in January 2020?

Put simply:

The UK, under international law, is required to ensure goods entering Northern Ireland from England after the transition period are checked to be up to EU trading standards. This ensures no hard border is required between NI and Ireland, which could cause political instability due to the sensitive history between the countries, thus posing a threat to the Good Friday agreement. This was all negotiated, agreed and signed by UK ministers last year under the Northern Ireland Protocol- a protocol within the Withdrawal Agreement.

The Internal Market Bill explicitly contradicts the Northern Ireland Protocol as it means that all devolved nations will be obliged to set their standards to whatever is agreed by Westminster and goods will be entitled to freely move around the union.

This means trade will no longer be able to pass through Northern Ireland and Ireland without being checked which raises many questions surrounding how the goods will be checked and whether it will reignite the political instability seen before.

Ultimately, this is illegal under international law. Ministers will have the power to disapply the Northern Ireland protocol and other rules relating to the movement of goods.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, published in 2019 as part of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, ensured there would be no need for goods to be checked at the Irish border. Instead, checks on goods, standards and tariffs between the north of Ireland and the rest of the UK should be carried out at a ‘border’ in the Irish Sea.

No disruption

In September 2019, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald tweeted:

She added:

The EU agreed with… all of us, there was an agreement that the bottom line was no disruption to trade and protection of people’s livelihoods, but above and beyond all else, protection of the status quo that underpins the Good Friday Agreement, we take no comfort that this will happen slowly, it can’t happen at all.

Will of the people

A 2018 Institute for Government report on the Irish border after Brexit described how the north-south border changed after the GFA:

Where previously British soldiers manned security checkpoints, and the majority of border crossings were closed, there are now over 200 open border crossings that allow the free flow of goods and at least 23,000 people in both directions every day.

In October, a poll in the north of Ireland showed that 55% of those surveyed prefer a ‘border’ in the Irish Sea, rather than between the north and south of Ireland, with only 38% in favour of the latter.

Meanwhile, US president-elect Joe Biden has made his thoughts clear on the matter:

We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.

And house speaker Nancy Pelosi warned:

If the UK violates its international agreements and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of UK-US free trade agreement passing the Congress.

Non-cooperation

An attitude survey conducted in the north of Ireland by UK/Ireland Border and the Stability of Peace and Security in Northern Ireland found that:

Respondents were asked whether and to what extent they would have sympathy or support for “possible forms of protest against any new border checks or controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.” If people who are opposed to a North-South border engaged in signing a petition or a peaceful demonstration, 60% of all respondents would have either “a fair amount of sympathy with this and would support it” or “a lot of sympathy with this and would support it a lot”

Were such demonstrations be widespread and escalate, that could mean internal market legislation and any other ‘hard Brexit’ arrangements would be difficult to implement.

The Internal Market Bill breaks international law and Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis admitted that’s the case. Consequently, any demonstrations or acts of non-cooperation by citizens, north and south of the border in support of the GFA, could be argued as being entirely legal

Featured image via Flickr/Henrikjon

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