A new trade agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which left the EU in 2020, could have finally found a way to safeguard peace in Northern Ireland after Brexit reignited old tensions.
The deal between the EU and the U.K., called the Windsor Framework, lays out new rules about how trade will move between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the island that consists of Scotland, Wales and England, the other three provinces of the United Kingdom.
Among other changes, the Windsor Framework creates two categories of items being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Items intended to stay in Northern Ireland would have free passage, but those destined to cross the border into the Republic of Ireland – which is in the EU – would face stringent screening.
The agreement has been ratified by the U.K. Parliament and the European Union. But it remains to be seen whether Northern Ireland’s unionist political parties will accept it and lift their boycott of the provincial government.
Since unionists’ refusal to join the power-sharing assembly began in 2022, elected representatives in Northern Ireland have not been able to tackle a growing backlog of critical issues, including the declining quality and availability of health care, the shortage of housing, the rising cost of energy and inflation.
As scholars of Northern Irish politics, we see a newly approved trade deal as an opportunity to return Northern Ireland’s political attention to those crucial issues.
A history of trouble
In the late 1960s, a period of violence known as “The Troubles” began, pitting nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland and are mostly Catholic, against unionists, who want it to remain part of the United Kingdom and are mostly Protestant. Over the following three decades, about 3,500 people were killed and another 47,000 were injured in riots, assassinations and other violence. These events were largely in the six counties of Northern Ireland, which are part of the U.K., but also happened in the neighboring nation of Ireland and the remainder of the U.K., on the island of Great Britain.
A 1998 agreement between the U.K. and Irish governments and various political groups in Northern Ireland ended the violence. That deal, called the Good Friday Agreement by nationalists and the Belfast Agreement by unionists, set up a power-sharing provincial government in Northern Ireland, close links between this new government and the Irish government, and various systems for cooperation and coordination between the U.K. and Irish governments.
The agreement also allowed people who lived in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, British or both and carry passports from both places. These measures made it easier for people with different identities in Northern Ireland to coexist, and in some cases to express complex identities. Today, for example, more than one-third of Northern Ireland’s population carry an Irish passport.
And the 1998 agreement says that the decision about whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the U.K. or unite with Ireland should be decided only by a majority vote of Northern Ireland’s people.
When the agreement was signed, both the U.K. and Ireland were part of the EU. The EU’s common market allows goods, people and business activities to flow freely between member nations, without customs or passport controls.
Within a few years of the 1998 agreement, trade and people were flowing seamlessly, rendering the border all but invisible – especially after the U.K. removed military installations and the fortified barriers at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Brexit risks peace
With the help of a strengthening EU, the peace was stable until 2016. That year, the people of the U.K. voted to leave the EU, though the majority of voters in Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the union.
The departure of the U.K. from the EU meant the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland mattered again. It would no longer be a technical, administrative boundary between EU member nations, but rather a point where goods and people would flow into and out of the EU and a non-EU country.
Tensions flared over where to put these checks and the possible new divisions they would create between either Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
In 2019 the U.K. and the EU agreed to a deal, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, that established a kind of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. It involved burdensome and slow customs checks on all goods arriving at Northern Irish ports and prohibitions on some goods including sausages, medicines, plants and potatoes.
Those problems sparked stiff resistance from unionists, who said it had done what they feared: separated them from their nation.
In 2022, in protest against the Protocol, the Democratic Unionist Party, a key party in Northern Irish politics, withdrew from the provincial government, effectively shutting it down.
Now, the Windsor Framework keeps key border protections around the EU but eases a lot of the restrictions created in the 2019 agreement.
A key US role
There is an element of U.S. foreign policy at work here, too. The U.S. was key to negotiating the 1998 agreement, and successive administrations have championed it as the only way to a sustainable peace.
When the U.K. voted to withdraw from the EU, the departure meant the U.K. needed to negotiate a new trade agreement with the U.S. But the U.S. decided to force the U.K. to work out its departure from the EU – in ways consistent with the 1998 agreement – before U.S.-U.K. trade talks could truly begin.
With the Windsor Framework agreed upon, the U.S. will likely send President Joe Biden to visit both Ireland and Northern Ireland, potentially as soon as April, to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1998 agreement. The new U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs, Joe Kennedy III, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, is also expected to travel to Northern Ireland soon, with U.S. investors eager to take advantage of Northern Ireland’s unique connections with both the EU and the U.K. markets.
All eyes are now on the Democratic Unionist Party. Its members voted against the Windsor Framework in the U.K. Parliament in late March, but the people of Northern Ireland, including many unionists and the business community, want a functioning government.
Kimberly Cowell-Meyers, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, American University School of Public Affairs
Carolyn Gallaher, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, American University School of International Service
(Source: The Conversation)