Prime Minister Boris Johnson made significant headway on the Irish border last year, after the problems surrounding it threatened to derail the Withdrawal Agreement. He and the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar agreed to ditch the Northern Ireland backstop and instead adopt the Northern Ireland protocol, in an attempt to preserve the Good Friday Agreement. The new arrangement would see Northern Ireland continue to follow the rules of the EU’s customs union and single market, while still officially leaving the bloc along with the rest of the UK.
This would prevent a hard border dividing Northern and the Republic of Ireland, and mean a customs border could be put up down the Irish Sea instead.
However, some groups are concerned that, as the end of the transition period approaches, the issue of Northern Ireland has been pushed down the list of priorities during the Brexit negotiations.
Mike Buckley, a pro-EU campaigner and director of campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’ even claimed in July: “Johnson will come to rue his policy over Northern Ireland.”
He continued: “[Johnson’s] chosen form of Brexit will lead to increased difficulties in three main areas: the peace process, human rights, and the economy.
“In each, Northern Ireland has seen progress since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – which has ushered in an era of relative peace and stability since it was signed in 1998 – but this progress is tentative at best and vulnerable to new shocks in ways that the rest of the UK is not.”
He pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement appeared to take “identity out of the equation” within Ireland, as the economic and legal rights of everyone in Northern Ireland were guaranteed.
He added: “Citizens could choose to be Irish or British with no consequences for their rights to reside, marry, seek employment or education.”
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Yet, the campaigner added that the DUP “lost its casting vote” in Westminster following the December general election.
Still, by restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly Mr Johnson ensured that Northern Ireland’s MLAs could vote on the arrangement every four years and maintained the ‘consent’ element of the Good Friday Agreement.
But some commentators believe this is not enough.
Professor Colin Harvey, from Queen’s University Belfast, wrote for Irish broadcaster RTE back in 2019 that Brexit could even lead Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU.
He claimed Brexit has had a “destabilising impact on relationships across these islands”.
Prof Harvey added: “The border on the island becomes an external border of the EU after Brexit, will all the symbolism that this carries combined with the severe practical implications.”
Brexit talks are currently at a stalemate, as both the UK and the EU refuse to budge over three key issues — access to UK fisheries, a level playing field and any governance of a future deal.
Mr Johnson has also threatened to walk away from negotiations without a deal, as he is determined to take the UK out of the bloc by the end of the year.