The British government has indicated that it is considering pulling out of a deal the country had reached with the European Union (EU) over post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The deal is called the Northern Ireland protocol.
What is the Northern Ireland protocol?
It is a part of Britain's Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU. According to this deal, checks are required on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of United Kingdom.
The Northern Ireland protocol is opposed by unionists in Northern Ireland — those who want Northern Ireland to remain within the UK — as they believe it represents a threat to Northern Ireland's place within the UK, which they often refer to as “the mainland”.
Why did the need for Northern Ireland protocol emerge?
The primary reason is the fact that Northern Ireland is the only part of UK that shares a land border with an EU country (Republic of Ireland).
When the UK was a part of EU single common market, goods were transported across this border easily as both sides followed the same EU trade rules. As a result of this, no checks or paperwork was required.
After UK left the EU, the need for a new system emerged because EU trade rules require border check when goods such as milk and eggs arrive from non-EU countries.
However, border is a sensitive issue in Norther Ireland. Creating border posts and installing cameras would upset the Nationalists in Northern Ireland, who are devoted to unification with Ireland, and cause instability in the territory with a troubled political history. In the past, the territory has seen decades of violence and unrest, which ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
To maintain stability in Northern Ireland, the power is divided between the Unionists, who are mostly Protestant and want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, and the Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic and demand unification with the Republic of Ireland.
To avoid fresh trouble, it was agreed that the sea between rest of the UK and Northern Ireland will become the de facto border.
According to a report, "instead of checking goods on the road across the Irish border, the protocol agreed that any inspections and document checks would take place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) instead."
Goods from rest of the UK will be checked at Norther Ireland's ports to ensure that they comply with EU laws.
Why is there opposition to the protocol?
Unionists strongly oppose it because in their view, placing a sea border between Northern Ireland and rest of the UK undermines their position, which is that the territory should remain part of the UK.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland's largest unionist party, is refusing to take part in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government unless its concerns are resolved.
“We have fought wars, thousands have died, to keep Northern Ireland secure in the union; and now, just like that, we are being pushed toward the republic with a sea border and a different set of rules,” said Ian Collins, a former loyalist activist.
"Although they came second in last week's elections to Sinn Fein, a nationalist party which accepts the protocol, a new Northern Ireland government cannot be formed without the DUP's involvement," reads a report by the BBC.
The UK government also has problems with the protocol, despite signing it in 2019. In their view, the EU is applying the protocol very rigidly.
London has already extended a 'grace period', delaying the time at which the protocol would come into full force.
According to the EU, this delay is a breach of international law. The EU has stated that renegotiation of the protocol is not on the table. It has laid out some new proposals in an attempt to make the protocol more acceptable to the current British government.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has rejected this offer, claiming that it would worsen the trading arrangements.
What happens now?
The British foreign secretary has said that, "the UK would be taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found".
Michael Gove, her colleague in the cabinet, has said that "no option is off the table".
Article 16 of the protocol allows EU or the UK to suspend any part of the agreement that causes economic, environmental or societal difficulties.
Simon Coveney, Ireland's Foreign Minister, has said that if the UK takes unilateral action, EU would impose counter measures and launch legal action.
Britain's former prime minister Theresa May also had a word of caution for the current government led by Boris Johnson. She said that the government must consider "what such a move would say about the United Kingdom and its willingness to abide by treaties which it has signed".
According to analysts, when the UK agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol, many Irish nationalist viewed it as a gift that will set the ball rolling for collapse of the union (with the UK) and ultimately the unification of Ireland through a referendum.
If the UK manages to dilute the Northern Ireland protocol, it will succeed in ensuring that the Union doesn't become weak due to Brexit.
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