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25 February 2021

The Irish border problem has returned to haunt Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister may be forced to break his silence on the trade-offs of his Brexit deal for the UK.  

By Stephen Bush

The European Research Group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs is set to call for the Northern Ireland Protocol to be scrapped entirely, while every single major unionist party in Northern Ireland has joined the legal challenge to the protocol. 

But no amount of legal or political wrangling can change the policy reality: which is that if you have divergence between states, you inevitably have border checks and a hard border. That is why the UK and Ireland have had a degree of regulatory alignment since Irish independence. 

That doesn’t change the reality that the Irish sea border has had real and iniquitous consequences for unionists. That the DUP backed Brexit, and rejected any form of Brexit that would have addressed the problem, does not change it either. The simple solution is for the whole UK to agree to permanent alignment on phytosanitary standards with the European Union – though that idea has, predictably, been rejected by the DUP

A flashpoint is coming at next year’s elections to Stormont. The executive can, in theory, vote to reopen negotiations on the protocol, which is unlikely to happen. But the mere presence of that power makes it more likely that the devolved institutions will again collapse. 

If the rest of the UK does diverge further from EU regulations, the problem will become more acute, because any divergence from EU standards means a deepening of the sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Johnson’s ascension to Prime Minister rested on his unwillingness to admit the trade-offs of his preferred Brexit for the UK. He may not be able to maintain that silence for much longer. 

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[see also: Brexit is no cause for celebration – this is a moment of national shame]