Support 100 years of independent journalism.

Why the row over the Irish Sea border is only going to get worse

If Boris Johnson pursues a free trade deal with Australia and diverges from the EU on standards, a thicker regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain can be expected.

By Stephen Bush

Violence is not “off the table” in response to the sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, a member of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) told the Northern Ireland affairs select committee yesterday

The Irish Sea border is only going to get thicker if, as looks likely, Boris Johnson opts to side with the cabinet’s free traders over the looming trade deal with Australia, because further divergence with the European Union on standards, particularly in agri-food, means a tighter customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That can be for good (the ban on foie gras) or for ill (greater openness to the antibiotic-resistance factories that are most large-scale American farms). But the border will get thicker, either way.

The cabinet’s debate over the Australia deal is, in large part, an argument about the deals that will follow a similar pattern, with Latin American countries and the United States. But it is also a debate that has consequences for the Irish border. 

The DUP’s big talking point on the protocol, and one that will get louder as next year’s Stormont election approaches, is that if the combined forces of the DUP, the UUP and the TUV can win five extra seats, they can vote to discard the protocol. Now, this isn’t quite true: they can vote to trigger a two-year process to discuss alternatives to parts of the protocol. But the one thing that stays is the commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. And, if the United Kingdom wants to stay outside the phytosanitary and agri-food orbit of the European Union, it can only end in one thing: a hard border in the Irish Sea. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them