Frustration to the fore in Belfast as Northern Ireland ruptures over Brexit trade turmoil

Unresolved questions over the region's future relationship with the UK and EU continues to plague domestic politics

Anti-Irish Sea Border poster is seen on an apartment block pole in the Loyalist Cregagh Road area of east Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo: Paul McErlane
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Northern Ireland’s political posturing brought fresh turmoil for the region’s people, frustrated by the shock waves of Brexit and a lack of action from the devolved government in Belfast.

An effective trade border in the Irish Sea is at the heart of the issue as consumers notice gaps in shopping centre shelves and experience geo-tagged barriers to selecting some goods sourced in Great Britain on platforms such as Amazon. “What is the point of it?" said Bonita Carnduff in central Belfast, referring to the protocol. “Are they going to charge lorries extra just to get food to here? We’re not in a third world country. I just think it’s the stupidest thing, the [sea] border thing.”

The protocol has been criticised by Unionist leaders who reject any sort of friction in goods movement or separate status from the rest of the UK.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Paul Givan has quit over the Brexit protocol arrangements. AFP

The resignation this week of First Minister Paul Givan, a member of the pro-British Democratic Unionist party, exposed the fundamental differences at the heart of the devolved administration in a region still rebuilding following decades of sectarian violence. At street level there are complaints about interruptions in UK mainland trade.

“I have found it really hard to get things in with the protocol, especially when Amazon is coming up as ‘no longer available in your country’. I’m part of the UK but yet it's unavailable in my country,” said Tracey Lillie, who grew up in the traditionally Protestant area of Cregagh.

Cregagh Road resident Tracey Lillie from east Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo: Paul McErlane

“That's pretty annoying. Pretty upsetting as well to say that we're not a part of the UK when we are,” she added.

Ms Lillie says the protocol is destroying local businesses.

“They can't get things in and it's costing them so much more.”

Under the terms of the 1998 peace deal that brought decades of conflict to an end, the departure of Mr Givan triggers the automatic resignation of Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill of the DUP's main rival Sinn Fein, which backs Irish unification.

Checks continue

A High Court judge issued an interim order on Friday suspending a decision by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots to direct a stop to Brexit agri-food checks at Northern Ireland ports.

Mr Justice Colton said he was making the temporary direction until a judicial review of the minister's unilateral action this week to order a halt to port checks that are required under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Civil servants have yet to implement the instruction, pending legal clarity on their obligations, and checks are continuing.

Despite the withdrawal of Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill, other ministers in the devolved administration will stay in place. But the executive is now unable to make any significant decisions, including on the budget.

Regardless of the technicalities that Brexit has introduced, there’s also wider frustration over the devolved government in Stormont, which has plunged yet again into turmoil.

Officially known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, the border governs post-Brexit commerce but some goods crossing into the region from the rest of the UK face red tape and delays due to Britain's departure from the EU.

The protocol was introduced to keep Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods and preserve an open border with Ireland, a member of the bloc. In so doing, however, it created an effective border in the Irish Sea with the addition of those extra checks.

For some locals, the feuding over the Brexit rules and Northern Ireland’s future relationship with the rest of the UK is business as usual.

“They’re always at it,” said Paul McNally, a resident of Ardoyne, a largely republican area in northern Belfast.

Ardoyne resident Paul McNally, north Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo: Paul McErlane

“They’re like a bunch of kids in Stormont. If one doesn’t get what they want, they know that they have the power to completely bring the system down.

“There’s always something in Stormont. Unfortunately, the ordinary person, like myself or anyone that lives in working-class areas, we’re the ones that end up falling for it. They don’t care, they know their jobs are safe.”

Efforts by the UK’s central government and the EU to reform the protocol have made little headway so far. There is little praise for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration, even though he himself criticised the protocol.

On the Protestant-dominated estate where Northern Ireland’s most famous footballer George Best grew up, the message is clearly outlined on a poster: “Loyalist Cregagh says no to Irish Sea Border."

“The battles we refuse to fight today become the hardships our children must endure tomorrow,” reads the poster, a short kick away from where Best spent his early years.

No one wants the political turmoil or collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, said Ms Lillie.

“But I think it’s the only way to get the British government to step up and actually do something for us, because at the moment, they don’t want to do anything.

“They’re happy enough just to push us to the side and let us get on with it,” she said.

Sinn Fein could end up winning May’s local elections and critics have accused the DUP of taking desperate measures to shore up its own support.

“When international agreements are signed, they need to be honoured and the British government needs to understand that,” Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Fein, told The National moments after Mr Givan’s resignation.

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill (L) and President Mary Lou McDonald (R) after the announcement that the DUP's First Minister resigned from Northern Ireland's devolved government. Photo: Paul McErlane

“And here in Ireland, we need good government. And we need the institutions of the peace process to work and that means that everyone including Unionists need to play ball with that,” she said outside the Europa Hotel in central Belfast, known as the most bombed hotel in Europe for the repeated attacks inflicted during the Troubles.

Ms McDonald said: “What we're witnessing now is just very bad behaviour, self-interested, electorally driven opportunism by the DUP.”

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson last year threatened to collapse the devolved government in Belfast in protest over the border arrangements that were agreed by Mr Johnson's government.

“At the end of the day, you want strong leadership … for the whole country,” said one resident of south-east Belfast.

“Strong leadership gives you a strong sense of community, a strong sense of community,” he said, not giving his name because “I'm not political … I just do my own thing”.

But those fundamental differences about Brexit and the border — whether in the Irish Sea or with Ireland — that have triggered the current political crisis look unlikely to move anytime soon.

A pro-British poster against the Northern Ireland Protocol is seen in the Protestant Shankill Road area of west Belfast. Photo: Paul McErlane

On Friday, Mr Donaldson said Mr Johnson should “step aside” if the UK prime minister does not urgently address “political stability in Northern Ireland and dealing with this Protocol”.

“There is a divide within society …. But I think it’s just a matter of — we are part of the UK,” said Ms Lillie.

One of the key strands of the political dispute in Stormont was the desire “by the British and Unionists here” to get rid of the Protocol and the protections it offers “the island of Ireland from the worst effects of Brexit”, said Ms McDonald.

“We need those protections. They're a consequence of Brexit and they're not going anywhere.”

Updated: February 04, 2022, 4:55 PM
Checks continue

A High Court judge issued an interim order on Friday suspending a decision by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots to direct a stop to Brexit agri-food checks at Northern Ireland ports.

Mr Justice Colton said he was making the temporary direction until a judicial review of the minister's unilateral action this week to order a halt to port checks that are required under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Civil servants have yet to implement the instruction, pending legal clarity on their obligations, and checks are continuing.

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