Next week, representatives from the United Kingdom and the European Union will meet to discuss the increasingly contentious issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Since coming into force on January 1, 2021, this post-Brexit agreement, which attempts to balance the need for a trade border between the UK and EU with the need to maintain an open land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, has been a point of contention between the UK and EU, and between different political factions within Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Before Brexit

Recently, a panel of historians determined May 3, 1921, as the official birth date of Northern Ireland. On this day, the Government of Ireland Act went into effect, establishing a land border between Northern Ireland – which remained part of the UK alongside England, Scotland, and Wales – and the independent Republic of Ireland. Checkpoints along this border were heavily enforced by the British Army and were a frequent target for violence during the Troubles—a conflict between largely Catholic Irish nationalists in favor of Irish reunification and largely Protestant unionists in favor of remaining a member of the United Kingdom, which began in the 1960s and ended in 1998 with a peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement.

The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland both joined the European Communities, a precursor to the European Union, in 1973. This mutual membership in the EU’s single market and customs union helped in implementing the Good Friday Agreement. With no need for regulatory or customs checks between EU countries, a fully open land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was feasible. In 2016, however, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, leaving Northern Ireland—where a 55.8 percent majority voted to remain in the EU—concerned over the future of its open border.

Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol

Between the United Kingdom’s 2016 “Brexit” vote and its official withdrawal on January 31, 2020, the question of where to establish the border between the UK and the EU’s single market and customs union was a point of significant concern. Maintaining the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is a priority for the UK, while protecting the “integrity” of the single market is a priority for the EU. Negotiators ultimately agreed on an “internal trade border” in the Irish Sea. Under this agreement, known as the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, Northern Ireland will continue to adhere to EU safety standards and regulations, while Great Britain will implement its own standards. While this maintains a customs-free exchange of goods over the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, preventing the need for reinstating border checkpoints with a loaded history, products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will go through customs inspections to ensure they adhere to EU standards and regulations.

As originally agreed, the NI Protocol contained a three-month ‘grace period’ for the implementation of EU-required regulatory controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which was set to expire on April 1, 2021. In early March, the British government moved unilaterally to extend the ‘grace period’ exempting “agri-food products” from customs checks until October 2021. EU representatives have condemned this move as a “violation” of the Brexit agreement and a “breach [of] international law.”

In Northern Ireland, there is concern about what happens once this grace period runs out. Steve Aiken, a member of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, warned of a “huge” increase in the cost of generic medications once the UK adopts standards for pharmaceutical safety, quality testing, and licensing requirements that differ from the EU’s, since Northern Ireland will no longer be able to “bulk buy” British-made generics. Aodhán Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, expressed concern over the likelihood of food shortages once the EU’s Export Health Certificate requirement phases in. An EU ban on British soil halted the movement of plants and other goods containing traces of soil, such as used agricultural machinery, from Great Britain to Northern Ireland until the British government decided to temporarily relax the rule in March, again drawing the EU’s ire.

Advocates of the Protocol suggest that it presents an economic opportunity for Northern Ireland, as businesses there will be able to sell to both Great Britain and EU markets more easily than an EU-based company to Great Britain or visa-versa. This may attract foreign direct investment from companies that wish to take advantage of this dual access to EU and UK market. However, surveys show a decline in business confidence—77 percent of members of the trade group Manufacturing NI “found the protocol had a negative impact on their business” and more than a third responded that they’re “‘struggling’ with new border processes.”

There is a growing sense of frustration in Northern Ireland with both the EU and the British government, and tension over the NI Protocol is reopening old wounds. Democratic Unionist Party leader Edwin Poots accused the EU of using Northern Ireland as a “plaything” to “punish the UK,” while Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill sees the British government as the party acting in bad faith, making “another unilateral attempt to override what has been agreed” by extending the grace period. In February, ports in Larne and Belfast temporarily suspended regulatory checks on live animals and food products coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain after staff were threatened with “menacing behavior” by opponents of the NI Protocol. In April, violence broke out in Belfast as unionists protested the NI Protocol and the Irish Sea border.

What’s Next For Northern Ireland?

Going into the UK-EU joint committee on Brexit’s meeting next week, both sides appear inflexible on their respective asks. Thus far, the UK has rejected the EU’s offer of a “Swiss-style” agreement on agriculture and food products, which would consist of aligning its food standards with the EU’s, while the EU has rejected the UK’s request for a two-year waiver of checks on “supermarket goods, pharmaceuticals, chilled meats and parcels” entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The Northern Ireland Protocol contains two provisions to suspend or end its implementation, in whole or part: Article 16, which can be triggered by either the UK or EU to suspend elements that cause “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties,” and a “consent vote” in the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, scheduled for 2024. The EU invoked Article 16 less than a month after the NI Protocol went into effect, in an attempt to close a “back door” on the export of Covid vaccines into the UK through Northern Ireland. Although EU officials quickly backtracked on this decision, it exposed the fragility of this agreement in the hands of officials—on both sides—willing to pull the trigger to deal with immediate political concerns.

Even if it is amended or repealed, the Northern Ireland Protocol may have already set in motion broader socio-political consequences. The implementation of an Irish Sea border – even one that applies only to the movement of goods and not British citizens—has undeniably emphasized the literal and metaphorical distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Tensions over the NI Protocol, and unionists’ feelings that they’ve been betrayed by the British government, may lead to further violent clashes in coming months. Unionist militants have warned that violence isn’t “off the table” and named the historically divisive date of July 12th as a deadline for the British government to win concessions from the EU.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s southern neighbor has stepped up. In 2019, Irish Tánaiste Simon Coveney announced that Ireland would cover the costs of maintaining EU health care access for Northern Ireland, an estimated €4 million ($4.9 million) commitment. The Irish government has since announced it will pay another €2.1 million ($2.6 million) for Northern Ireland’s continued access to the Erasmus student exchange program

Could Irish reunification happen in the near future? A BBC NI poll from April 2021 shows that, at the time of their response, slightly less than half (43 percent) of respondents in Northern Ireland would vote for a reunited Ireland, as compared to slightly more than half of respondents (51 percent) in the Republic of Ireland. In the long term, though, more than half of respondents on both sides of the border—51 percent in Northern Ireland and 54 percent in Ireland – believe that Northern Ireland will leave the UK between the next 10 and 25 years.

Author Biography: Alessandra Palazzolo is a senior moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She received a B.A. in International Affairs with a concentration in International Economics from The George Washington University.