Irish Sea border tensions persist

Will Brexit result in Irish reunification?

Not even US President Joe Biden, issuing warnings to Boris Johnson that his provocative stance on the Irish cross-border trade row puts at risk the Good Friday peace agreement, nor any indication that European leaders will step back from what was legally agreed in the Brexit deal, are likely to force the Prime Minister to shift an inch in resolving the situation.

The Brexit divorce was never an amicable settlement and the hastily concluded Northern Ireland Protocol always seemed, from the British point of view at least, a case of “get the deal done and worry about the detail later”.

But the devil, as predicted by some, is in the detail, and in both north and south, many are watching in horror and fearing the worst for the island of Ireland as the situation dissolves into chaos. Before the referendum, Arlene Foster, then first minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said it was “disgraceful” of both Tony Blair and John Major to warn that Brexit could jeopardise the unity of the UK. But Brexit has partitioned the UK by putting what is in effect a border in the Irish Sea. When the Protocol was introduced, Johnson said, “It ensures for those living and working alongside the border that there will be no visible or practical changes to their lives: they can carry on as before.”

The reality is different, and Johnson has changed his rhetoric, warning that if the EU doesn’t accept a different interpretation of the rules then “we’ll have to take further steps.” The Prime Minister could ease the tension and the checks on 80% of goods crossing into Northern Ireland by accepting the EU food and sanitary standards. He won’t do it because any backtracking would appear to his power base, the English Brexit hardliners, as weak and completely unacceptable.

Ultimately for the English right, it will always be England before the rest of the “Union”, so Johnson and his government will continue to blame the delay on goods entering Northern Ireland on the EU, which is only doing what was agreed. Meanwhile, discontent seethes in the province, with the unionists struggling to convince increasingly sceptical followers that Brexit was still the right way to go, and others already sure that Brexit not only made a united Ireland possible, it made it inevitable.

What our surveys show

The Northern Ireland Protocol was implemented to avoid a hard border between the north and the Republic. Within it, Northern Ireland must stick to some EU rules to allow goods to move freely between the two countries. It isn’t working out that way. Our question on whether the Protocol is the best way to manage Northern Ireland Brexit trade issues brought no eye-catching majority view, but divided opinions and revealed confusion. We took overall numbers and also the Northern Ireland-only figures. The highest overall percentage, 27%, answered, “don’t know”, whilst the highest Northern Ireland-only figure was the 25% who “strongly disagree” that the Protocol remains the best option.

But as our graphic demonstrates, there are many who believe otherwise. There have been many polls in Northern Ireland on the topic of Irish reunification, usually returning a small majority in favour of remaining within the UK. We took an overall poll and a large majority, 55%, said the people of Northern Ireland should decide for themselves, whilst 15% thought it should stay within the UK and 18% thought it should become part of the Republic.

Surveys

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