notable on the island of Ireland. Traffic from southern ports to destinations in the EU has tripled; the amount that unloads in British ports has dropped by half. Northern Irish companies that shipped their products via Dublin now do so via Scotland. Many ships return empty because British companies do not know how to ‘export’ to Northern Ireland.
But those imbalances and costs do not provoke the sentiments fueled by a change that will take effect this Monday. A carrier wishing to ship a shipment of refrigerated sausages off the coast of England, Wales or Scotland bound for Northern Ireland will need to present an Export Health Certificate at the port.
That products from part of the United Kingdom are exported when they are sent to another part of the country is a consequence of the special structure of the province in the Withdrawal Agreement, signed in October 2019 by the Government of Boris Johnson with the European Union. It is also a shocking symbol of their new status for pro-British unionists, who are the majority in the region.
The historical fractures justified that the EU accepted in a special Protocol that the region be part of the United Kingdom and at the same time of the community customs union, shared with the southern republic. For this reason, the entry of sausages, plants and other goods from the other coast of the Irish Sea requires import procedures that the EU applies to products from countries that are not members.
Recent investments and trade agreements focused on the European market indicate that the region could benefit from its new circumstances, as its chief minister, Arlene Foster, expressed in January. But the unionist leader was silenced by more radical colleagues, the beginning of ‘Brexit’ complicated the supply to supermarkets and the appearance of graffiti threatening customs employees in the port of Larne led to her temporary withdrawal.
Hundreds of banners have been hung on lamp posts this month demanding the removal of the Protocol. Sammy Wilson, deputy of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), already expressed the discomfort of radical unionism in December, in the House of Commons. “I am 100% British and I want to stay 100% British. I am against the Agreement because it reduces my Britishness, “he proclaimed.
The European Commission aggravated this unease by announcing on January 29 the activation of the emergency mechanism to suspend the Protocol. It wanted to prevent Northern Ireland from becoming a gateway for vaccines into the UK, after it was informed by AstraZeneca of a drastic reduction in committed supply.
In the five hours that elapsed between the announcement of the suspension and its withdrawal, the EU appeared ready to impose border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Avoiding these controls was precisely the stated objective of the Community negotiators of the Agreement. “The fury it caused in Dublin should not be underestimated,” Irish MP Neale Richmond said this week.
The vice-president of the Commission, Maros Sefcovic, responsible for the management of the Protocol, has expressed the “deep regret” for that temporary decision in the meetings that he has held this week with politicians, businessmen and representatives of civil society in the two Ireland. The Slovak has promised flexibility to apply the rules, but is not contemplating their withdrawal.
Boris Johnson, who has already promised to break the international law of the Protocol during the negotiation of the Cooperation and Trade Agreement, has felt legitimated to announce that he is willing to invoke the urgent suspension mechanism if the situation worsens. And he has appointed David Frost, the hostile diplomat who brokered the deal, as Brexit minister.
What happens is a consequence of decisions by Johnson and Frost. By giving priority to a minimum trade agreement, they created the need for a border between the two Ireland or a special status for the North. The prime minister promised before and after that there would be no controls between Britain and the province. And he refused to extend the transition, leaving only days for the learning of these domestic ‘exports’.
Northern Irish businessmen are adapting to the changes and believe that the mechanisms of the Protocol can work. They ask that the training of British companies on the new procedures be promoted. They proposed to Sefcovic concrete measures to relieve the current pressure. On the political horizon, there is a regional election in 2022. The new regional Assembly would have to give its consent to the continuity of the Protocol in 2025.