Monday

18th Jan 2021

EU and UK stumbling into Irish border crisis

  • Belfast: UK to manage Irish Sea customs under supervision of EU institutions (Photo: William Murphy)

The looming collapse of the Irish border deal, threatening security, is the elephant in the room in Brexit talks, a top UK think-tank has warned.

"Against the background of a global pandemic, it is very difficult to see how preparations to implement the [Irish] protocol can be completed before the end of the year," the Institute for Government said in a report on Saturday (23 May).

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"[British] government capacity is being absorbed managing the [health] crisis" and "key staff", who had been dealing with Brexit, had been "redeployed", it said.

Transport firms were also too busy dealing with the current emergency to prepare for the Brexit cliff-edge in 2021, when a "transition period" ends, the think-tank noted.

"The UK and the EU should extend the transition period, or agree a separate, longer implementation period for the Withdrawal Agreement", dealing with the Irish border, it said.

Britain left the EU in January, but everything has stayed the same until the transition period expires at midnight on 31 December.

British prime minister Boris Johnson's Irish Sea deal was designed to prevent a hard land border in Ireland, which would violate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a peace accord that concluded decades of sectarian violence.

The deal is to see Northern Ireland stay in the EU customs union and abide by EU regulations.

And it will make the UK responsible for customs on goods going in and out of Northern Irish ports to and from the rest of Britain.

EU and UK negotiators are currently working on a new Brexit accord that will govern trade from 2021.

But the last time they held talks, on 15 May, no one mentioned the Irish problem, amid clashes on fisheries, data protection, and other issues instead.

Both sides also voiced "disappointment" and "regret" on lack of progress, as the days count down to June, when another legal deadline expires - the deadline for extending the transition period.

Meanwhile, if the UK or Northern Ireland fail to deliver on Johnson's deal in future, they could end up before the EU courts in Luxembourg.

Damage

That would "damage its [the UK's] international reputation and harm its trade ambitions, particularly with the EU", the British think-tank said.

If joint UK-EU management of the Irish deal "collapsed", it could also create the "hardest form of border in the Irish Sea", harming Northern Ireland's economy.

But the elephant in the room was more dangerous than just that, the Institute for Government added.

If the Brexit talks continued to go nowhere and the Irish deal unravelled entirely, it could lead to new checkpoints on the Irish land border, invoking old demons.

The Good Friday Agreement ended a recent "history of violence," the London-based think-tank warned.

"At its most severe, non-compliance with the [Irish border] protocol may generate the need for the Irish government to impose checks elsewhere on the island of Ireland, potentially creating political and security risks in Northern Ireland," it said.

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