Crisis in Northern Ireland: How the Protocol threatens political stability

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Stability – in all its political and economic forms – is based on certainty and clarity, supported by trust and made possible by trust. Where these conditions are lacking or rare, the potential for political instability is real and immediate. And the political stability of Northern Ireland is threatened.

Since the day of the Brexit vote, Northern Ireland has been economically and politically upset by the continuing lack of clarity regarding first the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and then the implementation of the protocol.

Agreement on the protocol in October 2019 might have signaled some level of clarity about the future of Northern Ireland – but the failure to implement that same agreed protocol has produced little more than an additional uncertainty for businesses and society.

Complicating matters is the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election which, despite its historic character, did not lead to the formation of an executive, or even facilitate the functioning of an Assembly.

Much has been made of the constitutional uncertainty in Northern Ireland. The social and economic instability caused by this impasse is less well understood. The actions of the DUP effectively prevent the functioning of the public sphere. The absence of power-sharing institutions means that pressing public policy issues are not getting the attention they deserve at a time when the cost of living crisis is acute.

This creates deeper instability and exacerbates division. The UK Peace Index (2013) demonstrates a correlation between deprivation and peace: “By tackling deprivation you can have a big impact on peace”. The UK Government and the Irish Government have long understood that supporting Northern Ireland’s economy means supporting peace.

The problem for Northern Ireland is that it currently lacks the capacity to tackle deprivation at local level. In a scenario where this translates into increased unemployment, poorer health, lower incomes, reduced education and a degraded living environment, the prospects for stability are seriously called into question.

Add to that the utterly extraordinary decision of the UK government to flout international legal standards and abandon the protocol in a move that appears to favor one political party over others, ignores majority support for the protocol in Northern Ireland and misrepresents its effect on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s intention to act on DUP objections by threatening to scrap parts of the protocol is politically and economically irresponsible. It is an act of blatant political partisanship in an already divided society.

It is also an action which further deepens the wider atmosphere of economic anxiety in Northern Ireland by failing – once again – to create conditions of clarity and certainty for business and trade. In the worst case, it increases the possibility of an economically damaging trade war between the UK and the EU.

All of these worrying developments have been accompanied by a marked deterioration in the tone and substance of Anglo-Irish relations, which have always been essential to maintaining stability in Northern Ireland.

In this political and economic maelstrom, all the conditions we associate with stability are being undermined. Power-sharing institutions are in limbo; inter-community and bilateral relations are at their lowest; commercial terms are uncertain; and economic challenges are mounting.

Such developments impinge in a very real way on the lived experience of people in Northern Ireland and create a wider atmosphere of discouragement. The collective impact of the lack of certainty, clarity, and trust creates the potential for escalating instability.

But what might deeper instability in and for Northern Ireland look like? Well, economically, a trade war between the UK and the EU would bring additional hardship and provide fertile ground for increased tension and unrest. Politically, we may witness a critical loss of confidence in decentralized institutions. This can give impetus to calls for reform or lead to direct government.

There may be stronger pressure for constitutional change which may presage equally strong resistance to such moves. Although no one foresees a return to The Troubles, more violence in the months and years to come is possible.

Northern Ireland has gone through a number of political crises since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In Northern Ireland, however, the current Protocol crisis is different. It has a negative impact on all the conditions that facilitate political stability.

Those involved in solving the many problems currently facing Northern Ireland should be crystal clear that when it comes to securing peace and stability, the stakes have rarely been higher and the Rarely have the risks been so serious.

By Dr. Married C. Murphy, Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration at University College Cork. His latest book (with Jonathan Evershed), A troubled constitutional future: Northern Ireland after Brexitwas published by Agenda Publishing in March 2022.


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