Fears of a trade war and renewed conflict in the north of Ireland have increased dramatically after the British government this week tore up the Irish Protocol of Brexit in a flagrant breach of international law.
The protocol, which prevents a hard border through Ireland, had been opposed by unionists over the introduction of new checks on goods traded at ports in the north of Ireland.
The introduction of legislation by the British government to unilaterally alter the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has pushed its international relations further into a downward spiral.
If the plans continue, the EU has threatened to retaliate with “all measures at its disposal”
The measures would override the current arrangements, whereby the north of Ireland is effectively kept in the EU’s single market for goods, with the necessary customs and safety checks taking place at two or three seaports.
The British measures would leave the border through Ireland as an unguarded entry into the EU Customs Union and Single Market, forcing the reintroduction of checkpoints along the border and delivering on a long-standing goal of Brexiteers, unionists and loyalists.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and hardline Brexiteers claimed a significant victory for their campaign. Donaldson said Tuesday’s move was “welcome if overdue”, and a “significant” step towards convincing him to end his party’s veto on the return of the North’s political institutions.
Unionists paramilitary figures linked to the UVF have also been arguing that their campaign had forced a u-turn. The organisation, which has threatened the lives of port workers and carried out street disturbances as well a hoax bomb attack on a peace-building event in north Belfast, issued a further threat of renewed violence last week.
However, most commentators believe that the actions of the Tory Cabinet continue to follow the path of greatest expedience, with Ministers continuing to vie for support among far-right backbenchers to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
The protocol was negotiated by Mr Johnson as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, but he now repudiates the deal.
Asked how he could justify breaking the treaty he signed, Johnson, who visited a heavy weapons factory in Belfast on Monday (pictured), argued that the new trade checks are a breach of the 1998 Good Friday peace Agreement.
He said “the higher duty of the UK Government in international law is to the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process”. He added: “That is the thing we have to really look to.”
Liz Truss (pictured, inset), who introduced the legislation at Westminster on Tuesday, has faced mounting international criticism for her avid support of the ‘nuclear’ strategy for taking on Europe.
On Wednesday Truss was outed as the source of an anti-Irish slur when she dismissively told a US audience three years ago that the impact of a no-deal Brexit on Ireland would only “affect a few farmers with turnips in the back of their trucks”.
She had insisted, contrary to the terms of the document itself, that the plan to rewrite the Protocol cannot be delayed because of the DUP veto at Stormont.
“I’m absolutely clear that we can’t delay... delivering a solution in Northern Ireland. The situation is very severe.
“The Executive hasn’t been formed since February. And we’re only going to be able to get it back up and running, to get the Belfast Good Friday Agreement working again, by delivering this solution.”
But the move puts the Six Counties in a “very dangerous place”, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said.
She told radio listeners that the north was caught “in a game of chicken” due to London’s plans.
“The behaviour of the British government and Boris Johnson in terms of initiating again legislation to override an international agreement does not bode well for a good faith negotiation and I think that puts us in jeopardy in terms of the uncertainty and instability that it provides for us here,” she told BBC Radio.
The relationship between Dublin and London are said to be at a historic low.
The 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said London’s unilateral action in respect of an internationally binding agreement is “damaging to trust” and will serve only to make it more challenging to find solutions.
He said grandstanding at Westminster was not how the Protocol issues would be resolved.
“We are dealing with the consequences now of a decision by the British people on our own country that’s cost us hundreds of millions of euros, that is risking the peace process and its institutions on the island of Ireland. So you know, when we focus on frustrations, we need to think beyond Westminster.
“There’s no way the EU can compromise if the UK is threatening unilateral action to pass domestic legislation to set aside international obligations under an international treaty that, don’t forget, the UK was the primary designer of along with the EU.
“At a time when the world needs the Western world to be united, to be acting in concert to solve problems together, this is a problem we need to solve together.
Russian donations are feared to have motivated a hardening of the anti-EU position within the British government. A transfer of £450,000 to the Tories is the subject of an ongoing financial investigation, according to the New York Times. In 2020, a donor suspected of funnelling Russian money to the Conservative Party gave Britain’s Direct Ruler in Ireland Brandon Lewis a five-figure sum.
Speaking to reporters in Cork on Saturday, the Taoiseach Michael Martin said the “fundamental challenge” with the Protocol lies with the British government.
“The European Union really has never got a landing zone from the British government in relation to the protocol. It’s very unclear what will suffice for the British government. We have some sense of what would work with unionism, but we don’t have that sense with the British government.”
He added: “Don’t forget this treaty was designed and ratified and agreed by the British government under this prime minister.
“He stood for election and got a huge mandate from the British people on the back of that deal and now is blaming the deal for the problems in Northern Ireland.”
Asked what were the implications of London taking unilateral action on the protocol, Mr Coveney said: “People across the United Kingdom need to understand what that means, it means that your government is deliberately deciding to breach international law, which is something that every former prime minister still alive in Britain has warned against.
“It means that the British government would be deliberately acting in an anti-democratic way because 53 of the 90 MLAs elected to the Assembly in Northern Ireland are supportive of the protocol.”