Northern Ireland’s Brexit balancing act
The coming months could be a real stress test for Northern Ireland. Though legally it has left the European Union, Northern Ireland will still be subject to many EU laws and regulations. Officially part of the UK but in many ways still in the EU.
What could this new role mean for a country that has struggled for decades to secure lasting peace, stability and economic success? The new situation could reignite old questions about Northern Ireland’s identity. There are currently no border controls on the island of Ireland.
Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland which remains a member of the EU have a completely open border, with freedom of travel, trade and a shared electricity grid. And that is supposed to remain unchanged in spite of Brexit, in order not to jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement and the hard-fought peace that has been achieved on the island.
Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the European Single Market, with the customs border officially in the Irish Sea. This poses a huge challenge for port authorities and haulage companies, because that customs border will effectively split Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The port will be required to carry out customs checks for goods coming from Britain to Northern Ireland. Haulage contractors will have to fill out customs declarations although it’s actually domestic trade.
On the other hand, some companies - like one sports clothing manufacturer in Belfast - are happy to be able to continue trading closely with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU, despite Brexit. But it’s clear, businesses will have to realign and many fear they will be forced to decide whether to trade with the EU or the rest of the UK.
And that turns Northern Ireland’s special status into a political issue. Could it drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and Britain, making closer ties with the Republic of Ireland seem more attractive? The Unionists, who attach great importance to Northern Ireland being part of the UK, are furious.
They rejected all suggestion of a customs border in the Irish Sea right from the start, while the Republicans believe this process will inevitably work in their favor, leading ultimately to the reunification of Ireland. So how is all this affecting ordinary people in the cities of Belfast and Londonderry, who continue to live with the high barriers that separate predominately Unionist neighborhoods from Republican ones?