COVID vaccines and Brexit borders: what is happening in Northern Ireland?
Some Brexit-related customs checks have been suspended and inspection staff withdrawn from duties at Northern Ireland ports over security concerns.
This represents a worrying escalation in tensions created by the new Brexit arrangements in the region. The situation has been made worse by unhelpful rhetoric prompted by the COVID crisis.
Chief among these was the EU’s announcement that it intended to trigger a clause in the Brexit deal in order to stop the movement of COVID vaccines between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Unionists were quick to note that this contradicted the EU’s longstanding claim that the Brexit deal would not lead to trade barriers on the island. More pointedly, first minister Arlene Foster, declared Brussels’ move a “hostile and aggressive act”.
Foster’s language reflected the particular anxieties that the unionist community has about the Brexit deal, but also the pressure on the Democratic Unionist Party that has come as a result of its unwitting role in facilitating this situation. Graffiti has recently appeared in loyalist areas declaring: “No Irish Sea border - Arlene must go”.
Unionists have been critical of the Brexit process from the moment the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, jettisoned the proposals of his predecessor, Theresa May. May had aimed to treat all parts of the UK as one in her Brexit deal, but in order to obtain a more radical departure from EU oversight Johnson accepted that Northern Ireland would continue to exist, effectively, under EU jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the rest of the UK would go its own way.
This avoided the possibility of a politically destabilising “hard border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but only by creating controls that affect movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Many unionists see this as separating them from Britain and pushing them towards a united Ireland.
The EU’s threat to restrict vaccine circulation was a disastrously knee-jerk reaction to a dispute with AstraZeneca over supply chains and was, ultimately short lived. Within hours the plan had been reversed. But it has left its mark in Northern Ireland, where police chiefs had already noted their concerns about rising tensions in the unionist community. Assistant chief constable Mark McEwan recently suggested that there would be a more “visible” manifestation of discontent in the streets of Northern Ireland were it not for pandemic lockdown measures.
Foster can now be expected to try to reassert the DUP’s role as the dominant voice in unionism by leading criticism of the so-called “Northern Ireland protocol” – the part of the Brexit deal that controls the entry of goods to the region. The deal does allow for an emergency suspension of the protocol, which is what the EU briefly mooted in regards to vaccine distribution. This ill-advised move set a precedent for diversion from the deal that DUP will now repeatedly point to in order to suggest how unstable it really is.
The party has already complained over shortages of certain goods in Northern Ireland. These have been overstated, and there is still a “three-month grace” arrangement in place during which not all customs declarations will need to be submitted. This is to allow supermarkets to adapt to the new system – but, even with this period, suppliers, customers and relevant government authorities will have to work swiftly to iron out the creases before the full rules come into force.
The DUP’s solution – to simply scrap the protocol – is not viable. However uncomfortable unionists are with the idea of a border between themselves and Great Britain, there has been one there for quite some time already. It’s called the Irish Sea, and it’s tricky to cross without a boat or aircraft. It therefore makes far more sense to check goods at the ports that create the handful of crossing-points between Great Britain and Ireland rather than the hundreds of crossing-points along the Irish border.
Re-establishing what Irish nationalists always saw as an artificial border – and a central cause of the Troubles in Northern Ireland – would have been more politically destabilising. And it was clear from the outset that any meaningful Brexit would either restore this or establish checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. The DUP was thus foolish to back the Brexit project, but even more foolish not to then support May’s Brexit deal in 2018-19. That would have avoided either customs border by creating a “soft” Brexit. However, Brussels has now also been foolish, and given DUP a casus belli by even gesturing at a suspension of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The fact that both the UK and Ireland were EU members helped make the Irish border meaningless. Brexit threatened that, but Johnson decided Northern Ireland was politically expendable in order to achieve a hard Brexit.
The EU worked hard to accommodate the UK’s changing demands, but Brussels and London will need to continue to cooperate to ensure that the Northern Ireland protocol works as smoothly as possible in the long term. They may need to modify arrangements over time, and for that, constructive dialogue will be necessary.
Unfortunately, both sides have undermined goodwill at this point, exacerbating divisions in Northern Ireland – the region that Brexit was always likely to hurt most. Adding vaccine nationalism into the mix creates a distasteful and dangerous cocktail.
Brexit was always going to cause difficulties like those we are now seeing. All parties to the deal need to work to minimise these. They need to tone down the bellicose rhetoric, and instead take cooperative action to make things work.