Nov 15th, 2021, 08:35 AM

Burning in Belfast: What Is the Future of the Northern Ireland Protocol?

By Erin Flanagan
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash
If the United Kingdom unilaterally suspends the Northern Ireland protocol, what does that mean for peace in the region?

This past week, images of a burning bus on the outskirts of Belfast served as a symbol for the escalating tensions in Northern Ireland following renewed negotiations and concerns over the country's status in a post-Brexit world.

This comes after weeks of Britain demanding "an overhaul" to the protocol governing the trade rules designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union. 

The Northern Ireland protocol has kept the British-ruled state within the European Union single market to avoid border checkpoints with Ireland, which were flashpoints during the Troubles. However, many fear that the resurrection of a hard border between the two countries could jeopardize the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the sectarian conflict between unionists and republicans in the North.  

Source: The Guardian on Youtube

Britain's proposed changes to the protocol seek to lift some checks on goods between Northern Ireland and Britain, which have enraged unionists who identify as British.  Pro-UK unionists are frustrated by the trade border in the Irish Sea, saying it "undermines the province's place" as a member of the UK and "strengthens pro-Irish republicans' case for a united Ireland."

Now, the UK is potentially preparing to unilaterally suspend parts of the Northern Ireland protocol by invoking Article 16.  This cutout allows portions of the deal to be shelved if they are causing serious issues, but many fear that if the UK follows through on its threat, this could lead the EU to "abandon the entire Brexit agreement."

Apart from the consequences for the UK-EU relationship, significant changes to the protocol could have far-reaching implications for the UK-US relationship. President Biden has made clear his support and commitment to peace in Northern Ireland, including "his keen interest in the protocol."  The US president is very proud of his Irish heritage and is strongly opposed to anything that could jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement, including anything that could harden the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash


While the US and UK recently worked together on negotiating a submarine deal with Australia, President Biden is still establishing his relationship with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom he once called "the physical and emotional clone" of the former president Donald Trump. Britain's latest demands threaten to destabilize that critical but delicate relationship. 

Amid the political maneuvering, tensions are mounting in Northern Ireland. This was the second bus hijacking and burning in the space of a week. As discontent spreads and frustrations increase, many are concerned that Northern Ireland could see a new wave of instability and violence that could threaten the fragile peace established only 23 years ago.