Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features ‘Safeguarding the Union’ – The End of Brexit in Northern Ireland?

‘Safeguarding the Union’ – The End of Brexit in Northern Ireland?

Hannah Woodley recaps the tensions between Ireland and Britain, and examines how the new Northern Irish Brexit deal will affect their relationship.
5 min read
Written by
Image: Chris McAndrew of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson via Wikipedia Commons

With support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a new Northern Irish Brexit deal ‘Safeguarding the union’ has been voted through Parliament, meaning after a two-year boycott, the Irish Assembly will finally resume in Stormont. However, does this mean an end to Brexit, or simply a temporary pause in the political turmoil?

Brexit is a contentious issue, particularly in Northern Ireland. Before Brexit, the EU’s single market meant that trading could occur freely through the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK. However, after Brexit this was no longer possible, as although Northern Ireland left the EU along with UK, the Republic of Ireland is independent, so it remained. Due to EU rules, certain products need to undergo checks when arriving from a non-EU country, which would usually mean implementing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, due to the country’s turbulent political history, there were fears that this would erupt into violence.

Specifically, in the 1600s. British Protestants colonised Ireland, making it part of the UK, ensuing violence between Protestant Unionists who wanted to be part of the UK, and Catholic Republicans who wanted independence. To ease tensions, a border was created between Northern Ireland, which remained in the UK and contained mostly Protestants, and Southern Ireland, which became an independent republic of the UK which contained mostly Catholics. However, the border wasn’t perfect. Some Catholics became trapped in Northern Ireland, where they were subject to severe discrimination from Protestants. Eventually, this erupted into three decades of horrific violence known as ‘the troubles’, during which over 3,500 people died. In an effort to end the fighting, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. This abolished the border, dictating that if a majority voted to reunite Ireland, they could.

Determining a Brexit deal was proving extremely challenging, and with the DUP continuing to boycott Stormont, the country was in turmoil, resulting in public services rapidly deteriorating.

For this reason, it was feared that implementing a border would reignite conflict. To avoid this, the first Brexit deal, the Northern Ireland Protocol, suggested a border in the Irish Sea, where any goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK would undergo usual EU checks. However, the DUP supported a hard Brexit, meaning they wanted to fully leave the EU along with the UK. This protocol resulted in the country remaining part of the EU single market. The party were also strong Unionists, and felt that the sea border undermined their place in the UK, meaning this deal was completely dissonant with their political ideology, leading them to reject the deal and boycott the Irish Assembly. This left the government scrambling for an alternative solution, resulting in the second Brexit deal, the Windsor Framework. The deal aimed to resolve the issue of the sea border by creating two lanes for goods to arrive into Ireland. The Green Lane would contain products being sold in Northern Ireland, which would be subject to reduced EU checks on certain products, and the Red Lane would contain goods being sold in the Republic of Ireland, which would undergo the usual EU checks. However, the DUP rejected this deal too, viewing the lanes as “confirmation Northern Ireland has got a border with the Irish Sea,” as well as the region still having to adhere to EU rules, due to remaining part of the EU single market. Determining a Brexit deal was proving extremely challenging, and with the DUP continuing to boycott Stormont, the country was in turmoil, resulting in public services rapidly deteriorating. The UK Government had to think of a solution.

Although some Brexiter Conservatives were frustrated that Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU single market, they voted through the deal along with Labour MPs, reflecting a shared desire to resolve Brexit in Northern Ireland and resume Stormont.

Last week, a third Brexit deal, ‘Safeguarding the Union‘, was approved by the DUP and voted through Parliament, with the party returning to Stormont after more than two years. However, the deal has been met with mixed reactions, with many politicians relieved that a resolution has been met, and others left confused, and even angry by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s approval of the legislation, believing that it doesn’t address the primary issues from previous deals. Specifically, Northern Ireland will still have access to the EU single market, and although EU checks will be removed for many products being sold in Northern Ireland, for some items such as raw materials and components, they will remain. This is reflected in a speech by Sammy Wilson, member of the DUP, to the commons last Wednesday: “When the Northern Ireland assembly sits, ministers and assembly members will be expected by law to adhere to and implement laws which are made in Brussels, which they had no say over and no ability to amend, and no ability to stop…This is a result of this spineless, weak-kneed, Brexit-betraying government, refusing to take on the EU and its interference in Northern Ireland.” Although some Brexiter Conservatives were frustrated that Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU single market, they voted through the deal along with Labour MPs, reflecting a shared desire to resolve Brexit in Northern Ireland and resume Stormont.

Although Donaldson signed the Brexit deal, he will not be returning as first minister of Northern Ireland. Stormont has a power-sharing system, where a first and deputy minister, one Unionist and one Nationalist, have equal powers in an effort to ease tensions. The DUP now occupies the deputy minister post, with Emma Little-Pengelly taking on the role, along with Michelle O’Neill as the first minister, a Nationalist politician. There’s hope that this new Irish Government can symbolise the beginning of a fresh slate in Irish history, restoring faith and stability in the country, with O’Neill telling Sky News: “We can have power-sharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services, and whilst we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations…I obviously am a republican, a proud republican, but I think it’s really, really important that I can look towards those people who identify as Irish republicans, but also those of a British, unionist, identity and tell them that I respect their values, I respect their culture.”

However, support for a united Ireland is growing, with 57% of 18–24-year-olds favouring it in opinion polls. If it were to be voted for in a future referendum, Northern Ireland would re-join the EU along with the Republic of Ireland, meaning it would be back to the drawing board with a Brexit deal.

You may also like

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign Up for Our Newsletter