It was one of those unexpected drives.

Leaving the western coast of Ireland and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, I took a different route back to the capital, Dublin. I went via Northern Ireland.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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I hadn’t been in that British province for many years. My memories were of border controls, police checks and army vehicles. To my childhood self, this part of Ireland seemed a kind of foreign country.

During the drive that took place a few years ago the border had disappeared. It was a strange and exciting experience, almost comparable to how the heavily guarded borders between Western and Eastern Europe gradually disappeared after the Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989.

In the case of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the invisible borders were thanks to a peace accord painstakingly negotiated between the British and Irish governments, with the United States playing a major role, supported by the European Union.

The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was aimed at ending the sectarian violence between unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom and nationalists who aspire to a united Ireland. In practice, along with a timetable to decommission weapons on both sides and put in place ways to reconcile the two communities, the province was granted a degree of self-rule.

Over time, the physical borders were dismantled. What a boon for trade, commuters, visitors, and animals to criss-cross these seamless borders. What a boon for confidence and hope that peace and reconciliation would eventually take root.

But now, those very accords could be in jeopardy in ways that could undermine the stability and fragile peace of the province. The repercussions cannot be underestimated. Unionists and nationalists could exploit political uncertainty and economic problems. There have already been incidents of sporadic violence. 

One key reason for the unease in the province is that the British government wants to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol. This protocol was agreed between the UK and the EU after Britain voted to exit the bloc in June 2016, finally leaving in January 2020.

The protocol’s primary aim was to prevent the reestablishment of a hard border between the non-EU province and the EU’s Republic of Ireland, which would undermine the peace accords. So, an exception was made for the entire island of Ireland.

As part of this exception, the EU insisted that customs checks had to be carried out between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Goods arriving in the province could then go unchecked to the rest of the island. There would be no hard border.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the minister who negotiated those arrangements, David Frost, now reject the protocol. They are under pressure from Northern Ireland’s unionists who argue that they are being discriminated against by having to accept customs checks between Britain and the province. They also fear that these controls would weaken their connection with Britain.

The reality is that the province is part of the British customs union but also part of the EU’s customs union by virtue of the fact that there is no border between the province and the Republic of Ireland. Controls between Britain and the province have been introduced to protect the integrity of the EU’s customs union, the internal market with the Republic of Ireland, and the Good Friday Agreement.

Johnson wants to rewrite the protocol, which is an internationally binding treaty, and he wants the role of the European Court of Justice, which oversees the single market’s rules, to be removed. This is a red line for Brussels.

The British prime minister wants controls and permits required by EU law reduced, if not scrapped, so as to create a seamless trade link between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Relations between London and Brussels have deteriorated to such an extent that some member states, frustrated by London’s backtracking, want to introduce targeted retaliation. This could include imposing trade tariffs on British exports if London reneges on the protocol.

To prevent any escalation in tensions, the European Commission, the EU’s executive, recently presented new measures to decrease the number of permits, the paperwork, and goods that have to be checked when entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

But that may not be enough for the Johnson government.

Britain is faced with shortages in the shops. This is largely due to Brexit, which cut the UK out of the EU’s system of the free movement of people. That has left the country with a shortage of truck drivers to deliver supplies, staff to take care of the sick and elderly, and people to pick fruit and work in low-paid jobs. Brussels is an easy scapegoat for these woes.

Finding a compromise between London and Brussels will be tricky. At stake for the EU is the integrity of the internal market, the integrity of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, and the trust that the people of Northern Ireland have in the Good Friday accord.

As for Britain, maybe it’s time to recognize the price of Brexit and the price of an Ireland without hard borders.