Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

One year later, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, Brexit is not nearly over.

The British region is in an important election year, with polls showing that trade union parties are on the verge of losing their majority for the first time – a seismic political shift in a region created for them a century ago.

But one of the most crucial issues in the May 5 election is one that voters care little about. Instead of health, inflation, housing or employment, the campaign will be dominated by Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements.

“This will undoubtedly be a big feature of the election,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology and Brexit expert at Queen’s University Belfast.

London and Brussels are expected to resume deadly talks this month on how to make the special arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, more workable. The negotiations will be the starting point for a politically volatile year, as the Democratic Unionist Party seeks to retain its voters, the nationalist party Sinn Féin seeks to seize the prime minister’s post and centrist parties try to become king.

Brexit left Northern Ireland over two jurisdictions: in addition to being in the UK market, it remained in the EU’s internal goods market. The arrangement was designed to ensure that there would be no return of a hard border on the island of Ireland that could take the region back to the dark days before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of sectarian conflict.

But the compromise has placed customs controls in the Irish Sea, causing problems for trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, despite lawyers arguing that it offers the region a chance to benefit from access to both the EU and UK markets.

Trade with the Republic of Ireland is already flourishing. Northern Ireland’s exports to its southern neighbor increased by 63 per cent to € 3.2 billion in the first 10 months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020, according to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office. Northern Ireland’s imports from the Republic were also 46 per cent higher, at € 922m.

Neil Collins, managing director of Wrightbus, a bus manufacturer focusing on hydrogen-powered vehicles, said the protocol had the potential to be a “very, very strong suit for Northern Ireland” but needed adjustments.

According to a recent survey by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Brexit has meant supply chain problems for nine out of 10 Northern Irish companies.

Paul Jackson, commercial director at McBurney Transport, a transportation group, said overall costs increased by 25-27 percent in 2021 and he expects another 10-12 percent increase in 2022.

“We have seen large increases in terms of our costs and. . . if we are not careful, Northern Ireland can become a manufacturing basin, ”echoes Geoff Potter, managing director at Gray & Adams (Ireland), a manufacturer of refrigerated trucks.

The DUP, the largest party supporting Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, has repeatedly threatened to step down from the region’s power-sharing government unless customs controls are scrapped. In a sign of how the protocol exacerbates the divisions between the communities, it is supported by Sinn Féin.

The EU has offered to reduce red tape and customs controls to end the dispute over the protocol, but London insists on further concessions. The British government is also threatening to suspend parts of the agreement by activating Article 16 safeguard clause, which could trigger a trade war with the EU.

But polls show many people in both unionist and republican communities in Northern Ireland accept, or are thanked by, the protocol.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP leader, pictured in Belfast in July 2021

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP leader, has spent a lot of political capital on the protocol in recent months © Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, has spent a lot of political capital on the protocol in recent months, but even if he continued with his threat, it would have little practical impact so close to the election. “Brexit was bad for trade unionism. . . and really bad for the DUP, ”said Pete Shirlow, director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute for Irish Studies.

The issue is also important for the Ulster Unionist party, which seeks to mobilize the moderate trade union vote. “Right now, half of their supporters are opposed to the protocol, a quarter are in favor and a quarter do not know,” Hayward said at Queen’s University Belfast.

With public ambivalence over the protocol, and census results expected to show Catholics surpass Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time later this year, the election was “union time”, she added.

There is also uncertainty as to whether union members will concede to Sinn Féin if the nationalist party comes out on top in so-called nominations – the process by which Northern Ireland’s elected representatives must appoint themselves “trade unionist”, “nationalist” or “other” to ensure cross-joint consent for decision-making.

After an election, the largest party within the largest nomination will nominate who will be prime minister and the largest party in the second largest community the deputy prime minister – although both posts have equal status.

Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Secretary, pictured in December 2020

Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said: ‘As long as the protocol remains a subject of dispute between the EU and the UK, and between Britain and Ireland, politics in Northern Ireland cannot settle as it should ‘© Filip Singer / EPA

But the DUP was not prepared to say whether it would serve with a prime minister of Sinn Féin. Support for the centrist Alliance Party, which was won field since 2017 and designating himself as “other” can be meaningful.

“We are going to get stuck in politics over whose prime minister and more distraction from the question of how we fix our health, how we fix our housing, how do we use the submission [the UK government’s budget transfer to Northern Ireland] to build a new economy, how do we build a new society, ”Shirlow said.

Brexit threatens to strengthen this political divide. Like Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Secretary, told the FT last month: “As long as the protocol remains a subject of dispute between the EU and the UK, and between Britain and Ireland, politics in Northern Ireland cannot settle as it should, especially in an election year.”

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