The more radical trade unionism of Northern Ireland (the political faction in favor of union with Great Britain) considers that the protocol on its territory which sealed Brexit was an existential threat to its identity, and in any case, a betrayal of Boris Johnson. Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), currently the largest of the four pro-British parties, Jeffrey Donaldson, launched 2022 with renewed pledge to shatter institutions of self-government in the region if London does not set a date . and a limit to its negotiations with Brussels. The DUP wants everything to be finished by the end of February. “If we do not make swift and decisive progress in the negotiations, and both sides continue to throw the ball forward, there will be serious consequences for the stability of Northern Ireland’s political institutions,” said Donaldson at the press conference. The telegraph of the day, the most Brexit-friendly newspaper and closest to Johnson.
The UK government avoided a trade war with Brussels at the end of last year, by withdrawing – temporarily – its demand that the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) not be the ultimate supervisor of rule compliance of the domestic market in Northern Ireland. To avoid the imposition of a border within the island (the Republic of Ireland is a member of the Union and, therefore, the Community border with British territory), the United Kingdom and the European Union approved, together with the Withdrawal Agreement, a document having the same legal force: the Irish Protocol. The island’s British territory would remain in the EU’s internal market and customs checks would be carried out in the Irish Sea. In this way, the invisible border between the two Ireland was maintained, imposed by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which succeeded in preserving the peace with the idea, among other things, that there was only only one Ireland, although in some places it was paid in pounds and measured in miles, and others in euros and kilometers.
London boycotted the Protocol from the first minute. For various reasons, practical and ideological. The new customs regulations put many obstacles in the way of the export of products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. For example, to the supplies of large supermarket chains with surfaces on both sides. Or for the delivery of generic drugs from the British National Health Service (NHS). But the “trade friction” issues, the ones that really worried businesses, were largely the excuse for the political and ideological shutdown of London and the Unionist parties in Belfast. Johnson’s Brexit Minister David Frost has stepped up pressure on Brussels by demanding the EU Court of Justice withdraw from the protocol, something he had never raised before, and which has angered the EU , because this has profoundly altered the spirit of the treaty. And the four union formations agreed in September to jointly demand the total withdrawal of the Protocol.
The DUP went even further and announced it would abandon Northern Ireland’s institutions of self-government, which Republicans and Unionists share in forcing the peace agreement. A hell of a blow to a still weak and endangered autonomy, which has just been suspended for up to three years by London, due to disagreements among its members.
Johnson’s decision to hand over the reins of Brexit to his new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, following Frost’s unexpected announcement of his resignation at the end of December, has been greeted with relief. It is true that Truss himself was in charge of ratifying in a press release the official line of the government, that is to say that he kept open the possibility of invoking Article 16 of the Protocol, and of unilaterally suspending a much of its provisions. But the previous announcement of the dropping of the request for the cancellation of the CJEU’s role in Northern Ireland was interpreted by Brussels – and by Dublin, which is most directly affected by the conflict – as a sign of flexibility in the negotiations.
The pressure on Truss, however, now comes twice. Not only will the hard, Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, increasingly distant from Johnson, ensure that he does not stray from the purity of the conquered Brexit. Trade unionists, especially the DUP, will not stop tightening the nuts. Autonomous elections are taking place in Northern Ireland next May. And the threat to pro-British forces spills over onto several fronts. Demographically and electorally, the majority joined by Republican parties like Sinn Féin or simply progressive parties like the Alliance or the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) is increasingly powerful. And the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), protagonist of the years which brought peace to the region, but which lay in dry dock for a decade, now has a serious chance of taking the throne of a DUP at low hour. This is why the nuances are important, and its leadership has already suggested pragmatic formulas to save (or modify without altering its foundations) the Protocol, instead of continuing to demand its repeal. If the new DUP leader Donaldson begins to feel cornered, he will be tempted to blow up the institutions of autonomy in February, and speed up the start of an election campaign with an uncertain outcome for Belfast, London and Dublin.
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