Northern Ireland has in certain respects always diverged from the rest of the United Kingdom. In politics, despite varying links between parties there and in Britain. In citizenship, with the right to an Irish passport. More recently in agriculture, with the late Ian Paisley senior’s quip that the cows are Irish and the creation of a different veterinary zone. Most importantly, in terms of the fraught questions over the identity of the population.
Now, with Brexit imminent, a new split approaches, for the future relationship with the EU will differ to that of the rest of the UK. In London the main political question of the year will be the form of the future trading relationship with the EU. In Northern Ireland the EU relationship is already broadly defined for the coming years, and it is the closer nature of this, and the impact on links with Great Britain, that will be at the heart of debate. This has already caused real concerns, which cannot be simply wished away by empty promises from the prime minister. Equally there may also be opportunities, particularly now the Northern Ireland Assembly has returned to operation, building on the unique status the province will have.
A political party died in October 2019, and that was the Conservative and Unionist Party. Signing up to a Withdrawal Agreement which prioritised Brexit ahead of free trade and common regulation within the UK demonstrated where its ultimate priorities lay, and it was not with the preservation of the union. Whatever the prime minister claims, it is clear that goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland will be treated as if they were entering the EU, whether in terms of tariffs or regulatory checks, with some system of (likely retrospective) tariff waiver for goods that stay in the province. Northern Ireland businesses will be subject to EU single market rules. It is less clear what checks and paperwork may be in place for goods coming from Northern Ireland across the Irish sea, but given that goods can enter the province from the EU with no checks or tariffs, it would be surprising if these can in turn enter Britain in the same way.
To an extent these rules for trade within the UK will be dependent on the future UK-EU relationship. As well as potential tariffs, if there is to be widespread regulatory divergence between Britain and the EU then this is going to mean extra checks on goods travelling to Northern Ireland. There are occasional suggestions that the UK government will adopt stricter safety regulations than the EU, in which case those goods covered might have to be checked on entry to Great Britain.
As has already been demonstrated it is unlikely that London will make decisions on the future UK-EU relationship with Northern Ireland considerations in mind. The UK government has however committed to Northern Ireland representation in meetings with the EU to determine how relevant elements of the Withdrawal Agreement will be implemented. This should enable representatives to make a case for systems that minimise the impact on trade to and from NI. Representation may though be something of a mixed blessing, as ultimately the committee will not be able to avoid checks being implemented, and one can easily imagine the government in London unfairly blaming the EU and Assembly for them.
It should also be remembered that NI will be subject to new and amended EU regulations without any democratic say beyond the general consent to stay within the arrangement every few years, an anomaly ignored by Brexiteers now they have a deal they like for Britain. This will join the long list of Brexit issues for the assembly to be concerned about, and yet it may also present an opportunity. It is assumed that Northern Ireland-based business will have full access to the EU single market, and this may well encourage British businesses to open up an office in the province to take advantage. The rights of those in Northern Ireland to Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship may add to this appeal, for those with only UK passports will soon lose their automatic right to work across the EU. For UK service providers to the EU, employing dual national citizens will be one way to minimise future trade barriers, and Northern Ireland will have the greatest concentration. A future “Invest in Northern Ireland” campaign could do very well.
It is said that Northern Ireland should also benefit from new UK trade deals, such as with the US, but this is more questionable. Given that EU goods can come to Northern Ireland without checks it would not be surprising if countries without EU trade agreements would be concerned about giving these goods preferential access to their markets. Like the promise of unfettered Northern Ireland to Great Britain trade, it may turn out the promise of new trade deals doesn’t quite hold.
There is a huge amount of detail to be established in terms of trade between Northern Ireland and the EU, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and the UK and third countries. The politics remain sensitive, notwithstanding the revival of the Northern Ireland government. The dependencies on wider UK and EU decisions will be ever present. Yet there is just a hint that NI could take advantage of an unexpected and unwanted agreement to find new opportunities. The Republic of Ireland is already ahead of the UK on most economic measures, but with Northern Ireland some way behind. It would be a real irony of Brexit if the whole island of Ireland soon became more prosperous than Britain.