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A year into Ireland's post-Brexit relationship with Britain, what can we expect in 2022?

The next cycle of The Good Information Project from The Journal will look at the post-Brexit relationships between Ireland, the UK and the EU.

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AT THE BRITISH-Irish Council held in Wales this week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked about why EU-UK relations were so bad.

“How long have you got?” he replied initially, before saying there was a need now to turn the corner on relations between the EU bloc and its former member.

But after five years of debating what Brexit should look like in practice, and with regular public disagreements between the EU and the UK, it’s beginning to look increasingly likely that this is how things will always be. 

Diplomatic flare-ups over grace periods and trade details between the EU and UK will be a customary part of the news cycle, much like the superpower posturing between the US and China.

This will leave Ireland increasingly in the lurch, as it tries to grow its global influence independently of the UK, while also maintaining a good relationship with its closest neighbour.

Building those Anglo-Irish relations anew outside the structures of the EU is made all the more volatile by the divisive and unpredictable politics in Westminster. 

The latest flare up: commentators and analysts thought it was increasingly likely that the UK would trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which reared its head recently for the first time since February when Boris Johnson’s Brexit bulldog David Frost said the UK would trigger Article 16 if the Protocol wasn’t replaced.

This was said on the eve before his counterpart in Brexit Protocol negotiations, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, unveiled the EU’s proposals on how to smoothen post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.

This turned out to be an opening salvo. The real threat of triggering Article 16 flared up about a month later – the same week the Tory government became embroiled in a ‘sleaze’ row.

As murmurings from the corridors of Westminster grew that Article 16 would be triggered, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party took a hit in the polls following the controversy, falling to 36% and behind Labour (at 37%) for the first time in 12 months.

In the end, the UK Government didn’t trigger Article 16 when it was suggested it would, and a deal between the EU and UK looks increasingly likely. 

“There’s enough going on [right now],” an adviser to the British Prime Minister told the Financial Times, referring to inflation, cost of living, energy prices, and Covid-19 pressures.

Article 16, by the way, is a standard trade clause that is usually unused, and is the ‘emergency red button’ that would suspend the Protocol temporarily for specific post-Brexit trade rules that have been identified as problematic.

This would be done if the trading arrangements lead to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”, as the Article 16 clause states.

Of course, that’s Brexit in a nutshell.

If Article 16 were triggered, it would not solve the UK Government’s problems with the Protocol – those problems being as big as the oversight of the European Court of Justice, or as small as whether a chilled sausage can be sent from England to Northern Ireland.

It would most likely trigger another round of negotiations, even though the EU and UK are already talking about how to solve what Boris Johnson once called “teething problems” with Northern Ireland trading arrangements in its Joint-Committee.

If these negotiations failed and the UK took unilateral action to cut out the rules it deems unnecessary, the EU may take “proportionate rebalancing measures”. These are then subject to review every three months, and both sides can request a review at any point.

With the UK regularly threatening to abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol, which it rubberstamped twice in the last 12 months, where does that leave Ireland? Can it maintain its relationships with the UK Government during the regular rows with the EU?

Should it?

The alternative is to de-prioritise Ireland’s relationship with the UK, and seek allies elsewhere. But who are they in Europe, and further afield, and does that make sense to do ahead of our nearest neighbour, with whom we have centuries of ties?

And while all these diplomatic flare-ups are happening, where does that leave Northern Ireland? Not mentioned at all in the Brexit vote campaign, didn’t vote for Brexit as a region, not at the negotiating table when a trade deal was struck between the EU and UK, and disrupted politically, economically and societally in the aftermath of Brexit.

Social scientist and Brexit expert Professor Katy Hayward said at a DCU Brexit Institute event this week that the British government and the Irish government have been “talking for Northern Ireland internationally, but saying very different things”.

There has been an acceptance from both sides that there are issues with the Protocol – the disagreement comes over how insurmountable those problems are: the EU thinks they can be tweaked to work, the UK is asking for the whole Protocol to be removed.

Almost six months after the UK Government published its Command Paper, it’s still unclear what the UK is proposing would go in the Protocol’s place.

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Queen’s University polling suggests that there is a split in sentiment over the benefits and downsides of the Protocol – but polling from October has noted a growth in positive sentiment towards its impact on the Northern Ireland economy, protecting the Good Friday Agreement, and north-south cooperation.

Realistically, it’s still too early for us to know how good or bad it is for the North.

Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune made the point to The Journal last month that the Good Friday Agreement needs to be protected for various reasons, but also because it has a feature that other peace treaties between nations don’t – it has been democratically supported north and south of the border. This is an obvious argument for future cooperation.

“I don’t think the EU is understood on the UK side, and I don’t think the UK is properly understood on the EU side. Of course Ireland has a pretty important role to act as a translator, I think we can play a role there,” Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews argued.

For now, the UK Government has pulled its finger away from the big red button due to political pressures at home and shortage concerns in the run-up to Christmas. But the immediate question then is how long this can last – and what the impact will be on Ireland and the EU if it eventually does decide to go nuclear on post-Brexit trade. 

That’s why the next cycle of The Good Information Project from The Journal will look at the post-Brexit relationships between Ireland, the UK and the EU. 

Over the coming weeks, our reporters – including Gráinne Ní Aodha, Rónán Duffy and Ian Curran – will be examining and explaining what’s going on right now as these complicated relationships are navigated. Stay tuned. 

We want to hear from you

The Journal launched The Good Information Project with the goal of enlisting readers to take a deep dive with us into key issues impacting Ireland right now.

You can keep up to date by signing up to The Good Information Project newsletter in the box below. If you want to join the discussion, ask questions or share your ideas on this or other topics, you can find our Facebook group here or contact us directly via WhatsApp.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is 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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