In Northern Ireland, a thorny Brexit problem is about to be resolved

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Nearly two years of political deadlock. Paralyzed decision-making. Growing tension in a place where peace remains fragile even after the end of decades of sectarian conflict.

There are few places where the impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union has been felt more acutely. than in Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday there were growing hopes that one of Brexit’s most poisonous legacies would be alleviated – at least for now – by a new plan that should bring the territory’s political parties back into government.

In a dry 76-page document released on Wednesday – coincidentally the fourth anniversary of Brexit coming into force – the British government laid out the details of the deal. agreement he concluded with the Democratic Unionist Partyor DUP, to end its boycott of the power-sharing assembly in Belfast.

Crucially, the government announced it would reduce checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, tackling the biggest source of tension within the DUP, whose mainly Protestant supporters want to remain within the United Kingdom.

Unionists had argued that the imposition of post-Brexit customs checks on goods arriving by sea from Britain had driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

On Wednesday, the British government addressed this fear head on, citing the document in which it unveiled the deal “Save the Union” and saying the package he agreed with the DUP – including guarantees of the territory’s constitutional place within the UK and £3.3 billion in financial sweeteners – would “reaffirm and strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and its internal market. .”

After months of talks and a late-night meeting of the DUP executive committee on Tuesday morning, the combined proposals, along with growing public pressure in Northern Ireland, appeared to have been enough to persuade the party to return in government after almost two years.

Assuming there are no last-minute waits, the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont, just outside Belfast, could be up and running by the weekend, paving the way at a seismic moment in which the role of leader of the territory will for the first time be occupied by Sinn Fein, having become the largest party in 2022 Northern Ireland elections.

“This is a very important moment,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, noting that the DUP has agreed to share power again with Sinn Fein, which mainly represents nationalist voters. and commits to the one thing that is doing it. is anathema to all unionists: a united Ireland.

According to Professor Hayward, the UK government has proposed some relaxation of the trade deals that the DUP had campaigned so hard against. But as Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains a member of the European Union, challenges will remain, she said, adding: “Dealing with the fallout from Brexit will always be more difficult for Northern Ireland.

The sight of elected representatives once again sitting in Stormont will come as a relief to many voters after two years in which civil servants carried out the basic functions of government but were unable to make bigger decisions.

Wait times for health care procedures in the territory are long, public sector workers have been denied pay increases they would have otherwise received, and strikers recently took to the streets in a large protest .

Yet the origins of the political crisis underline the destabilizing effect of Brexit on the territory and the extent to which even prosaic issues such as the terms of trade can carry enormous symbolic importance in a country still grappling with a historic of bloody sectarian conflict.

There were profound reasons not to resurrect a visible land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. During the years of violence known as the Troubles, border checkpoints were targeted by paramilitary groups. These border points melted after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended most violence – and no one wanted them back.

So, after Brexit, the solution was to keep Northern Ireland in the European Union’s economic goods market, by allowing trucks to freely cross the land border with Ireland.

But as Britain left the European bloc, checks on goods had to take place somewhere and, to the anger of the unionist community, this meant checks on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland – creating an invisible border in the Irish Sea.

Last year, Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, concluded a new agreement with the European Union, known as Windsor Framework Agreement. This earned Brussels some concessions to reduce these controls, but these proved insufficient for the DUP and its leader Jeffrey Donaldson.

Mr Donaldson’s change of heart may reflect the deterioration of the situation in Northern Ireland caused by the political impasse and the looming general election in Britain, which Mr Sunak says will likely have place in the fall.

“I think the motivation is electoral and the DUP needs a bit of window dressing and something to get out of this situation,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London . He said the party would have started to “hemorrhage support if there had been strikes of the scale of recent weeks and it had become common for nurses to leave their jobs to work in supermarkets because that they could not get salary increases.”

Professor Hayward’s theory is that the DUP wanted to spend some time in government to help spend the extra £3.3 billion coming from London before the election, in order to maximize its vote.

Gentle and pragmatic, Mr. Donaldson took a risk in returning to the Assembly because some senior members of his party opposed it. The issue was so controversial that during a five-hour internal meeting to discuss it Monday evening, details of the conversation were leaked and posted live on social media.

Mr Donaldson defended the deal on Wednesday, saying it had achieved its objectives, while admitting he had made a compromise. “Is it perfect?” No, this is not the case. Have we delivered everything we would have liked to at this point? No, we didn’t,” he said.

His critics will now examine the details of the published document to see if it lives up to its promises.

To some extent the DUP has been caught in a trap of its own making. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, the party campaigned in favor of leaving the European Union, although a majority of voters in Northern Ireland ultimately voted to remain.

The return of a functioning government to Northern Ireland will be a welcome success for Mr Sunak, who is fighting to control his fractious Conservative Party amid continued poor survey results.

“It is thanks to Rishi Sunak that he has succeeded where others have not,” Mr Donaldson said on Wednesday. Yet while the Prime Minister may have finally cut one of the Gordian knots created by Brexit, there were reminders that some of its wider consequences are only beginning to be felt, with new controls on imports of food, plants and animals to Britain from European countries. The union came into force on Wednesday.

Cut flowers, fruits, vegetables and meats from the EU will now require health certificates, with additional physical checks required from April. The introduction of border controls has already been delayed five times by the government, and industry groups warn this could cause delays and increase costs.

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