David Phinnemore / Jul 2021
Brexit was always going to be disruptive, and minimizing the impact of its disruption on post-conflict Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland was the key reason why the UK and the EU agreed, as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, the now infamous Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Implementation of the Protocol continues, however, to be a challenge with the UK government failing to deliver fully on commitments and the EU struggling to contain its frustration with the UK’s approach to the Protocol amid accusations that it is lacking flexibility and pragmatism in expectations around implementation.
On the ground in Northern Ireland, the effects of the Protocol continue to be felt as supplies of some goods remain disrupted, the end of grace periods looms, and the political contestation around the Protocol has resulted in street protests by pro-British unionists and vocal calls to ‘scrap the Protocol’. Much political and media discussion and debate focuses on the contestation and opposition and the political instability that Brexit as caused.
Examples of how businesses have adapted to the realities of the Protocol and how some have taken up market opportunities arising from it have generally not made the headlines, although they do exist as does a focus among many business representatives on identifying and delivering solutions to the challenges the Protocol has undeniably raised. Equally the willingness of most non-unionist politicians – and indeed sotto voce some unionist politicians – to make the protocol work rarely grab the headlines.
Such acceptance of the Protocol has so far not been able to reduce the political heat around it and the continued contestation is set to remain for at least the next twelve months if not longer. The extent to which the Protocol has become tied up with identity politics and concerns among unionists that it undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom means it is almost certain to remain a neuralgic and divisive issue.
Moreover, the recent agreement at the end of June to extend the grace period for the introduction of prohibitions and restrictions on the movement of certain meat products may have avoided a ‘sausage war’. However, it only provided for a delay to the implementation of EU law.
Additional measures lifting restrictions on guide dogs entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, waiving the need for motorists from Northern Ireland crossing the border to have an insurance green card, and avoiding the need to re-tag animals crossing the Irish Sea are welcome.
Yet, they do not address the fundamental issue to which many unionists object – the differentiated treatment of Northern Ireland and the resulting ‘Irish Sea border’. The same applies to whatever emerges from the EU’s willingness to amend EU law to minimise disruption to the supply of medicines from the rest of the United Kingdom into Northern Ireland. And there are other grace periods expiring at the end of September: on customs declarations exemptions for parcels; and on the full application of export health certification requirements. Despite easements, the ‘Irish Sea border’ is set to become harder.
Not that there is no hardening of the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island of Ireland. The Protocol does not provide for the continued free movement of services, capital or people. Only UK and Irish citizens enjoy rights under the Common Travel Area.
Contestation of the Protocol will persist and feature prominently as an issue in the next election to the Northern Ireland Assembly scheduled for May 2022. And it will remain on the political agenda as Assembly members contemplate the democratic consent vote on the Protocol in late 2024. To be added into the mix will be the response of political unionism to the Belfast High Court’s recent rejection of a judicial review application of the Protocol. Leaders of political unionism in Northern Ireland claimed the Protocol breached the Act of Union of 1800 and the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The Court disagreed.
But beyond the political contestation, what do voters actually think about the Protocol. Opinion poll from findings from Queen’s University Belfast in June reveal evident and seemingly entrenched division. Although two-thirds of respondents (67%) agree that Northern Ireland does need ‘particular arrangements’ for managing the impact of Brexit, when asked whether the Protocol is appropriate for Northern Ireland, 47% agree and 47% disagree. Similarly, 43% think that the Protocol is, on balance, good for Northern Ireland, whereas 48% think that it is not.
That said, an increased majority (57% – up from 50% in March) think that the Protocol provides Northern Ireland with a ‘unique set of post-Brexit economic opportunities compared to the rest of the UK which if exploited could benefit Northern Ireland’. One third of respondents disagreed. Also, while there are concerns about the significance and effects of checks and controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain – almost three-fifths are concerned – only a minority (38%) said that they would like to see such checks and controls moved from ports and airports in Northern Ireland to the Irish land border. And a majority of respondents (57%) say that they would like to see the UK agreeing to regulatory alignment with the EU to reduce the checks and controls.
Does this suggest that there is an appreciation of the tensions between the hard Brexit the UK overall has pursued and the preference of the majority to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and that the only way to achieve this is some differentiated treatment of Northern Ireland? Arguably yes, even though it is clear that some voters are decidedly uncomfortable with how that tension has been resolved through the Protocol. Indeed, a significant minority would be content to see a return of physical infrastructure on the land border irrespective of the logistical, symbolic and political implications.
So what might this mean for the 2024 democratic consent vote? Another finding from the poll is that most voters have made their minds up and that in doing so, the Protocol matters. Three-quarters of respondents say that a candidate’s position on the Protocol will be relevant when choosing how to cast their vote in the next Assembly election. Most respondents (91%) have a view on how they wish MLAs to vote, and, again, this is evenly split: 46% in favour of the continued application of Articles 5-10 and 45% against.
With less than ten per cent of voters undecided, what happens with the Protocol’s implementation between now and the 2022 Assembly election is likely to be crucial for whether there will be a majority in favour of granting democratic consent to the Protocol’s core provisions. The increased majority that think the Protocol could benefit Northern Ireland if exploited should encourage those seeking to find solutions to making it work. The challenge is finding and delivering those solutions.
The opinion poll data is drawn from the latest Testing the Temperature report on the views of voters in Northern Ireland on Brexit and the Protocol. The report can be accessed via https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/post-brexit-governance-ni/OpinionPolling/