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Irish trade and politics are being transformed by Brexit - but how? What can we expect in 2022?

We’ve spent the last six weeks attempting to answer these questions at The Good Information Project.

AFTER FOUR YEARS of predictions, prognostications and recriminations over Brexit, the rubber finally hit the road in 2020 when Britain formally left the European Union on New Year’s Day.

And with a little under a year of data and experience now at our disposal, we’re starting to be able to make some concrete observations about the new arrangements and how they’re shaping Ireland’s relationships — North and south — with both Britain and continental Europe.

Over the past six weeks at The Journal, as part of The Good Information Project, we’ve taken a detailed look at different Brexit from a few different angles — diplomacy, trade and politics among others. 

Here’s a quick rundown of the work we did:

The goal, firstly, was to trace the outline of what we’ve gleaned from the first year of Brexit and, secondly, to get a sense of what we can expect in the second year.

Our decision to look at Brexit over the course of this, the final Good Information Project cycle of 2021, was largely influenced by the ongoing diplomatic row over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

With the twin threats of Article 16 and a potential tit-for-tat trade war between the EU and the UK hitting the headlines in November, it seemed a perfect time to take stock of how Ireland’s external relationships had changed over the course of the year.

The immediacy of that threat has dissipated in recent weeks for a number of reasons.

Crucially, as Gráinne Ní Aodha wrote recently, there now seems to be a greater understanding by the UK that as a legal tool, the use of Article 16 is rather limited.

If the UK government was to trigger it, it would only be able to suspend some parts of the NI Protocol temporarily, and in very limited circumstances. Doing so would not get rid of the Protocol or solve any of the problems associated with it.

But while the hands of the doomsday clock have moved slightly away from midnight, the debate over the Protocol isn’t going anywhere for the moment.

Why? For one, the row has already proved a useful distraction for the Tories, embroiled as they were in a scandal about lobbying at the beginning of November.

Happily, for Johnson and company, it was around then that certain elements of the British press began clamouring for Article 16 to be triggered by mid-November, Gráinne Ní Aodha wrote. But by the end of the month, junior Tory ministers were pouring cold water on the notion that this would happen before Christmas.

While the EU and its diplomats are keen to move on from the row and draw a line under Brexit altogether, it doesn’t look like an agreement will be reached this side of Christmas.

It’s a good example of how Brexit hasn’t quite been put to bed and why we should continue to expect flare-ups in 2022. It also shows why Ireland needs to maintain strong relations with Britain.

Key allies

Of course, it’s worth noting that Britain was once one of Ireland’s key allies in Europe.

While both countries were diametrically opposed on some issues — chiefly, the Common Agriculture Policy — Ireland and the UK had “common ground”, for example on the issue of European military integration, as The Journal’s Rónán Duffy highlighted.

“Ireland was keen to maintain its neutrality, with the UK suspicious of anything that might undermine its commitment to Nato,” he wrote.

The other side of this, as Fianna Fáil MEP for Dublin Barry Andrews pointed out in his contribution to The Journal’s Brexit cycle, is that Ireland isn’t exactly central to the agenda of British politics.

He wrote: “The orthodox view for years was that, for UK Prime Ministers, there was nothing to be gained in getting involved in Ireland.”

Although that stance was challenged by the likes of John Major and Tony Blair from the 1990s onwards, the reality is that British-Irish relations have deteriorated over the past decade, particularly as Brexit has come into play. 

Commercial relationships are also deteriorating, according to the trade statistics. In the year to the end of September, the value of Irish imports from Great Britain fell by 32% over the same period last year.

Commercial ties

At the same time, cross-border trade has boomed in 2021 and so have Irish ports like Rosslare

Brexit has totally upended the established rhythms of Irish trade on both sides of the border.

It has forced businesses in Northern Ireland — which effectively remains in the EU’s Single Market under the Protocol — to source from and sell more to southern businesses in a bid to circumvent the red tape associated with importing from Great Britain.

At the same time, many UK businesses are increasingly unwilling to negotiate the new customs landscape. 

“There’s a whole cohort of Great British businesses going, ‘Do you know what? We can’t be arsed,’” Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, told The Journal recently.

From a manufacturing perspective, the reality of what has been experienced by businesses since 1 January is that one in five of our manufacturers state that their GB suppliers are no longer prepared to send goods to Northern Ireland because they don’t want to engage with the complexity.

Brexit has also driven businesses in the Republic of Ireland towards Europe.

“I definitely got a sense from around March, April last year, exporters and importers were beginning to look at alternative suppliers,” Glenn Carr, chief executive of Rosslare Europort, told The Journal.

Irish businesses dealing with European customers or suppliers are increasingly looking to avoid the UK land bridge — routes connecting Ireland and Europe via British ports like Holyhead — altogether. 

This is driving demand for direct sailings, a phenomenon that is helping to transform Rosslare from a regional hub to a port of “national significance”, Carr says. Overall, there are now 44 direct routes from ports in Ireland to continental Europe — up from just a dozen last year.

Consequently, the volume of freight moving through Rosslare either to or from Europe has increased by a staggering 378% in the past year.

The six million Euro question is whether these changes are permanent are just an immediate reaction to the upheaval. And that leads to even more questions.

Will Brexit continue to strengthen ties within the all-island economy or drive a further wedge between Dublin and Belfast around issues like professional qualification recognition, which is not guaranteed under the terms of the Protocol?

Can we expect fresh tension between Dublin and Brussels on the one side and London on the other depending on the prevailing political winds blowing through Westminster?

Will Johnson’s government even reach an agreement with the EU over the Protocol?

All of these questions will have to be answered in 2022. So while this cycle of The Good Information Project is concluding, The Journal’s coverage of Brexit is not. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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