Before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned on 7th July 2022, the UK’s government was dealing with the consequences of its withdrawal from the European Union on Northern Ireland. Indeed, the provision that envisaged a new customs border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland, which was set up to maintain socio-economic liberalisation between the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, is being challenged by Brexit supporters as it creates a border within the United Kingdom. To solve such an issue, before Johnson’s resignation the UK government was trying to pass a controversial bill, which would significantly jeopardise London’s relations with the Continent and impact its diplomatic reputation. This article proposes a timeline of the evolution of the dispute in Northern Ireland, from the beginning of the dispute to the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, to help better understand the future developments that will be affecting the region in the coming weeks.
The dispute in Northern Ireland dates to British domination of the island during the XVIII and XIX centuries. During such a period, a dramatic mass starvation named the Irish Potato Famine, struck the Irish island. The famine was caused by a disease of the potato crop that destroyed for several consecutive years a significant part (up to almost complete failure between 1846 and 1849) of the harvest, and had a disastrous effect on Irish society. The Irish witnessed an almost complete crop failure between 1846 and 1849, as “nearly half of Ireland’s population relied almost exclusively on potatoes for their diet, and the other half ate potatoes frequently” (Mokyr, n.d). The Famine was inadequately addressed by the British Government, which failed to efficiently supply the population, while the impoverished Irish population could not even afford to purchase the products they produced, which instead were exported to Britain. The ineffective management of the crisis by British authorities caused emigration, but most importantly striked open opposition to British rule in Ireland.
As early as the 1870s, social unrest began with the idea of “Home Rule”, which is the idea of an emancipation process for the Irish legislative autonomy.In 1905, the Irish independence movement, Sinn Féin, was founded and gradually developed into a political party. Violence erupted in 1916 with the “Easter Rising”, and in the 1918 elections, Sinn Féin gained 70% of the Irish Members of Parliament (MPs) in the British House of Commons. Sinn Féin MPs set up a provisional assembly in Dublin (the Dáil Éireann, “Assembly of Ireland”), which declared the independence of the Republic of Ireland, leading to a war of independence, also known as the Anglo-Irish War, and the formation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The war was concluded by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, which envisaged that Irish counties with a Catholic majority became a self-governing British Dominion, the Irish Free State, while the northern provinces with a Protestant majority – which became known as Northern Ireland, were given a local Parliament and the option to choose between Dublin and London. Northern Ireland thus remained an English region with local government and a distinct economy (Stefanova 2013). In 1948, the Irish Free State achieved full de jure independence with the Republic of Ireland Act, and hence tensions sparked between those who favoured reunification with the rest of the island, and those who instead preferred English rule.
In the following 50 years, known as “The Troubles”, the region was ravaged by episodes of violence from either side, such as terrorist attacks and violent reprisals. The most relevant episode of “The Troubles” was the “Bloody Sunday” of 30th January 1972.Several attempts to reach stability in the region through peace agreements between the two communities failed, until the reaching of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern (fostered by diplomatic action conducted under Clinton’s presidency in the United States). The GFA envisaged a system of power-sharing in the region, having the two most important posts in the devolved Executive, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, representing respectively the most voted party and the party with the most votes in the opposing faction. Since they have equal powers and are forced to work together, both Irish Republicans and Unionists are represented at the same time in the devolved government of Northern Ireland, and must work together to push the agenda forward.In addition, violence diminished in proportion to the benefits coming from the process of European integration, which fostered collaboration and social peace between the two communities.
The Northern Irish power-sharing system is nonetheless flawed and vulnerable to the veto of either faction, which brings us to recent developments. Indeed, although the region voted against Brexit in the 2016 Referendum, with the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, a border must be drawn with the Republic of Ireland. In 2018, British PM Theresa May envisaged that Northern Ireland would remain in the European Single Market while the whole of the United Kingdom would remain in the customs union with the European Union, but this solution was considered unacceptable by the British Conservative Party, leading to her resignation. A second agreement, the “Brexit Withdrawal Agreement” signed by PM Boris Johnson the following year, set the border between the two islands in the Irish Sea. It stipulated that Northern Ireland, while being part of the British customs area, would abide by certain Single market rules. (Considère-Charon 2021). In the so-called “Northern Ireland Protocol”, part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, it is stipulated that goods will be controlled at Northern Ireland ports and airports and not at the border between Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland and that Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU rules on product standards. Brexit supporters disapproved of the Northern Ireland Protocol, fearing it will further separate Belfast from London.
Such debate is currently at the centre of the political scene in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Indeed, during the latest elections for the local Parliament, held in May 2022, Sinn Féin won the relative majority of votes (29%), while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) emerged as the second most voted party (21.3%). According to the power-sharing system in the Northern Irish government, the two largest unionist and republican parties must form the Executive together and cannot work without each other. In June 2022, DUP vetoed the creation of a new Northern Irish Government with Sinn Féin, hoping to change the provision of the “Northern Ireland Protocol” that sets the custom border in the Irish Sea. To address such an impasse, PM Boris Johnson envisaged a solution that could make the establishment of a custom border in the Irish Sea more acceptable to Brexit supporters: the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. It proposed:
- A so-called red-green lane for trade, where British suppliers can declare in advance whether goods coming from the UK have as final destination Northern Ireland (in which case they wouldn’t need to do any customs or sanitary paperwork, reducing checks) or the EU.
- A dual regulatory regime for goods regulations, which envisaged that British businesses would only have to meet the UK’s regulation standards if they’re selling in Northern Ireland
- Taking back the control of vat and state subsidy rules for Northern Ireland, which are currently limited by the EU State Aid Laws as Northern Irish businesses would be unfairly advantaged over other EU Members.
- To substitute the European Court of Justice in dispute settlements and instead have some sort of neutral arbiter.
Although the Bill is slowly getting through the British legislative process in the House of Lords after passing in the House of Commons, it was firmly contested by the opposition and even some members of the Conservative Party, such as former British PM Theresa May, which referred to the bill as “not legal in international law […] and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world” (The Independent 2022). To this point, the situation is in a stalemate caused by the resignation of Boris Johnson, on 7th July 2022. This interregnum period will be followed by the appointment of a new Prime Minister on 6th September, appointed by the Conservative Party, which is splitting on the issue (in the House of Commons’ second reading, 285 Conservative MPs out of 358 voted in favour). However, if the Bill is passed, it will heavily impact the UK’s relations with the European Union and its diplomatic credibility worldwide.
Considère-Charon, Marie-Claire. 2021. “Brexit and the Irish Question.” Foundation Robert Schuman. 8 February. Accessed February 2022, 13. https://www.robert- schuman.eu/en/european-issues/0583-brexit-and-the-irish-question.
Mokyr, Joel. “Great Famine”, Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on 10th July 2022,https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Famine-Irish-history
Stefanova, Boyka. 2013. The Europeanisation of Conflict Resolutions: Regional integration and conflicts from the 1950s to the 21st century. Manchester University Press.
The Independent, “Theresa May attacks government over Northern Ireland Protocol Bill”, 27th June 2022. Accessed on 10th July 2022 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9vVAucb-Pw
TLDR News, “Britain’s Plans for the Northern Irish Border (and why Europe hates them)”, 14th June 2022. Accessed on 10th July 2022 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6DDTT635T0&t=508s
[Image from Peter Foster and James Crisp’s article “Brexit talks thrown into chaos after Ireland makes fresh border demands in leaked document” on
The Telegraph, 9 November 2017. Retrieved on 20 August 2022. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/11/09/brexit-talks-thrown-chaos-ireland-makes-fresh-border-demands/%5D