DUBLIN, Nov 15 — What will happen in Northern Ireland has been a vexed question ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
This is what could happen from January 1, 2021.
A new ‘border’
To avoid checks at the border with EU member Ireland, customs inspections will be performed on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK — England, Scotland and Wales.
In practice this means increased checkpoints at ports in Northern Ireland.
This will avoid the prospect of a return of border infrastructure that were frequent targets of republican paramilitaries opposed to British rule in the province.
Unionists in favour of continued British rule, however, fear the hurdle of checks will create a new “sea border” with the rest of the UK.
In their eyes, that binds Northern Ireland in economic union with the Republic of Ireland, raising the prospect of a united Ireland which has divided the region for decades.
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended 30 years of violence over British rule, those born in Northern Ireland can claim British citizenship, Irish citizenship or both.
More than 800,000 of the 1.8 million people born in Northern Ireland currently hold Irish passports, according to FactCheckNI.
Since the Brexit vote, the number of passports issued by the Irish government to people in Northern Ireland has dramatically risen, granting citizens ongoing EU citizenship.
When the full effects of Brexit are felt from next year, it is likely applications will continue at a high rate.
That could create a Northern Ireland where the majority of residents hold Irish passports for the first time in history — and further stoke the case for a united Ireland.
It would also produce the bizarre situation of a UK region having a majority of EU citizens post-Brexit.
Shadowing customs, Northern Ireland will also remain aligned to the EU’s single market standards for goods, most notably manufactured and agricultural products.
However there are indications both provisions may place strain on Northern Irish businesses.
In 2019 the UK government said goods arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Britain will require import declaration documentation leading to “additional administrative costs to businesses”.
The European Parliamentary Research Service said “agri-food goods will also probably have to undergo costly and potentially disruptive checks for compliance with EU rules”.
London has unveiled an untested support service to offset customs costs.
But lobby groups say traders still face a punishing administrative process and ongoing uncertainty around regulatory checks.
Cost of living
Any extra business costs may trickle down to consumers, increasing everyday spending.
Nearly one-third of goods sold in Northern Ireland originate from the rest of the UK.
Supermarket lorries making the crossing can be stocked with up to 800 animal product lines which can each require 15-minute health, sanitary or veterinary checks, according to industry publication The Grocer.
Without government intervention, “either products or business models will become unviable”, said director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium Aodhán Connolly.
“That will drive up prices and limit choice for already hard pressed NI consumers who have half of the discretionary income of GB households.”
As with all else Brexit, there is a large element of uncertainty in Northern Ireland’s future outside the EU.
If the UK and the EU reach a trade deal, the special arrangements for goods could become redundant.
On the other hand, the UK government is currently legislating to undermine elements of its Brexit divorce deal, specifically regarding the plan to manage Northern Ireland trade in tandem with the EU.
London has admitted the move does “break international law in a very specific and limited way” and Brussels has begun legal action.
If the withdrawal deal unravels, the limited certainty Northern Ireland currently enjoys from 2021 onwards may also unspool. — AFP
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