Of all the places in the UK, Belfast is currently the most politically sensitive for Boris Johnson. On Monday, the British Prime Minister made the trip anyway. Just over a week ago, the pro-Irish party Sinn Féin won a historic victory in the regional elections, winning the most votes in Northern Ireland for the first time. Its leader, Michelle O’Neill, is now entitled to the post of First Minister, which is equivalent to a Prime Minister.
But the second-placed pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refuses to cooperate with the Republicans of Sinn Féin. The threat of a political vacuum in Northern Ireland is nothing new. This time, however, it also has direct consequences for the European Union. The five most important questions and answers.
The DUP, the party of priest Ian Paisley, who died in 2014, held the office of prime minister in Belfast for 15 years until the most recent election in early May. The Good Friday Agreement concluded in 1998 stipulates that Catholics and Protestants form the executive jointly.
Nevertheless, last Friday the DUP refused to elect a new parliamentary speaker and thus the constitution of a new government. The reason that Sinn Féin criticizes as false: First, the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit Treaty, must be suspended. It is unacceptable that her nation follows “a foreign entity” with EU laws.
The Prime Minister himself negotiated and sealed the protocol with the EU in autumn 2019. It establishes a customs frontier in the Irish Sea. Goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK must be checked on arrival. After Brexit, Northern Ireland remained part of the EU internal market for goods in order to avoid a land border between the British North and EU member Ireland. Both sides feared that old struggles would flare up again should old physical barriers resurface.
With this compromise, Johnson alienated the Unionists, who felt cut off from “mother country” Britain by the controls in the Irish Sea. In fact, ‘east-west import’ for Northern Ireland has become more cumbersome and expensive since the protocol came into force in early 2021, as some goods from the UK have to be treated like products from a third country. For Johnson, the situation means a difficult balancing act because, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he has to support the pro-British Unionists in principle, but the Brexit for which he is responsible requires painful compromises.
After months of wrangling, which had already broken the government of Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, London and Brussels agreed on the only possible compromise in October 2019. But as soon as the ink was dry, Johnson promised the Northern Irish that there would be no controls at all. When these began anyway in January 2021, there was rioting on the streets of Belfast. Graffiti, believed to be pro-British loyalists, appeared at Northern Ireland’s ports with ominous slogans against deployed customs officials. For security reasons, it was temporarily even withdrawn.
Incidentally, the British side has already unilaterally extended transition periods several times, thereby ignoring agreed controls. The responsible EU Commissioner, Maros Sefcovic, nevertheless presented a package in October 2021 which, among other things, provides for a reduction in controls by up to 80 percent. At the end of last week, however, London decided that the EU’s proposals were not sufficient. Sefcovic then warned the British against taking unilateral steps.
Last year, the EU side reacted to the British refusal to respect the protocol with the threat that the entire Brexit treaty and thus trade between the island and the continent could potentially be put at risk. In view of the war in Ukraine and the economy suffering from the consequences of the corona pandemic, nobody really wants that.
But Johnson’s government is now planning a further escalation: on Tuesday it will introduce a bill that would overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol. London claims its lawyers see no breach of an international agreement in this move.
The assumption is that Johnson is playing for time. On the one hand he is trying to placate the DUP with his threats against the EU. At the same time, the planned law will take months to clear parliamentary hurdles. But parties in Northern Ireland have only 24 weeks legally to form a new executive. Otherwise there will be new elections. Johnson pushes the protocol problems in front of him. Which means further political and economic uncertainty for Northern Ireland.