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UK & EU Make Agreement on Northern Irish Border Issue

Ziryan Aziz explains the importance of the Irish border settlement in the Brexit Agreement

Photo by David Geib

One could imagine sighs of relief, endless rounds of handshakes and fatigued smiles as one of the most contentious issues of Brexit was finally resolved. On Tuesday 8th December 2020, the Joint Committee in Brussels – the UK–EU body responsible for overseeing the Withdrawal Agreement – reached a final agreement on how the EU-UK border with Ireland will function. The terms came into effect on 1st January 2021 when Brexit was officially finalised.

According to Mr Šefčovič, the EU Commissioner leading the EU negotiation team, “one big obstacle” was removed from the Brexit talks once the border dispute was resolved. His UK counterpart, Michael Gove, praised the settlement as having “agreed stability and security for Northern Ireland”, as the country will now be able to enjoy “the best of both worlds”, with access to both the EU’s Single Market and the UK internal market. Above all else, the agreement has avoided the reimplementation of a hard border between the nations.

Why is the Border so Important?

The agreement signed in December sought to overturn a proposal in the former version of the Internal Market Bill which detailed that there would have to be some sort of physical vehicle checks when crossing the border because of trading regulations. Instead, both sides agreed that these checks would be contentious and impractical so would not be implemented, but that Northern Ireland would follow some EU laws surrounding customs and standards.

Even before the Brexit referendum in 2016, concerns about how a post-Brexit UK would tackle the issue of the border with Ireland dominated Brexit discussions. The question of maintaining peace between the UK and the Republic was paramount throughout talks in light of the turmoil between the countries during the Troubles of the last century.

From the 1960s up until 1998, Northern Ireland was rocked with violence, riots, and bombings as armed groups from the Catholic minority and Protestant majority fought in the streets over whether Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Communities and neighbourhoods were divided along sectarian and political lines, and people lived in a climate of fear, waiting for the next attack.

Whilst the Troubles are now over, the dispute between nationalists and unionists is very much alive, and before this agreement, there was concern that a hard border would reignite resentment between the two sides and the conflict would explode once more.

As was agreed in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – a peace plan that looked to bring compromise and stability between the countries – the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would entail no checks, no tolls, no cameras, and in many places no signs along the border. A major concern was that without an agreement reinforcing this in the Brexit settlement, tighter checks and border infrastructure may have been installed, and the peace which took so long to be founded would be undermined.

The Recent Agreement

Whilst the full details of the agreement are yet to be released, key points from the command paper provided by the government detail what is understood to have been agreed so far.

It is understood that as a temporary measure, any goods currently in circulation within Northern Ireland will be considered ‘qualified goods’ and will be allowed unregulated entry to Great Britain. However, come late-2021, goods arriving at seaports and airports destined for Great Britain will need to be ‘checked in’ by traders with ‘qualifying status’, but without the need to sign export declarations. This suggests that Northern Ireland will ultimately see no change in its land border situation, but goods being exported to the rest of the UK and the EU will have to go through the necessary checks at ports and airports before arriving.

Further points include allowing EU officials to be based at ports and airports for ‘supervision’. EU state aid will continue to be provided for Northern-Ireland-only businesses as well as for limited use in agriculture and fisheries.

What these talks have highlighted is that it is possible to find a middle ground in negotiations that appeared to be non-negotiable. Whilst controversial, the settlement of the rest of the Brexit trade deal just before the deadline suggests the break with the EU may not be as futile as anticipated. For Northern Ireland, a sense of stability has, for the time being, been achieved.


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