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What does the new Brexit trade deal mean for the future of Northern Ireland?


U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is trying to gather support for a trade deal between his country and the European Union, something to replace the old trade arrangements after the U.K. left the union in Brexit. Among other problems, the country of Ireland remains inside the EU. But if you look at, you know, the map or the globe on my desk, you would see that Northern Ireland, a U.K. possession, is on the same island. And that is now outside the EU. So how do they manage to trade across that border? Let's discuss it with Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen's University Belfast. Welcome.

KATY HAYWARD: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Would you just explain for people who don't follow this every day why it would be such a problem, how trade has managed to cross that border on your island?

HAYWARD: Yes. So for nearly 50 years, the U.K. and Ireland were jointly members of the European Union, which fundamentally helps reduce the significance of borders between member states. And that's practically important in terms of increasing trade, but also politically important as well. And for Northern Ireland, which is on the island of Ireland, as you say, but part of the United Kingdom, reducing - having an open Irish border was seen as helpful for the peace process on the island and also helpful for Northern Ireland's economy. With the U.K. leaving the EU, the challenge was, how do you avoid having a hard border for the external border of the European Union across the island of Ireland? And they came up with a special arrangement called the protocol, which essentially sees the checks and controls that would otherwise happen on the land border mainly happening down the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.

INSKEEP: OK. So let me make sure I understand this. So if you've got trade going between Belfast and Dublin, or cities on either side of that border on the island, it can go freely. And the issue is not to ship things further on into the U.K. Is that what you're saying?

HAYWARD: Yes. So the goods can move from Northern Ireland across the whole of the EU and into Britain. And this gives Northern Ireland a distinct advantage given that goods can't move freely from Britain into the EU. They have to go through checks and controls. However, this situation did bring difficulties for Northern Ireland. And because we're talking about borders, those difficulties were practical and political. So in practical terms, there was disruption to some trade coming into Northern Ireland from Britain, from the rest of the United Kingdom. And also, politically, unionists in Northern Ireland who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom were concerned that Northern Ireland was going to drift apart from the U.K. and become less secure in its position there. So this became contentious.

INSKEEP: Yeah, they become almost like a junior partner in the EU. So what is Rishi Sunak's solution to all of this?

HAYWARD: So the U.K. and the EU were at loggerheads over this issue for a long period of time and, after months of negotiations, have come up with this deal which essentially reduces the significance of that Irish Sea border. So what they're saying now is it's almost invisible. Those checks and controls, that's going to be a very light touch, essentially trying to allow for the fact that Northern Ireland is, in practical and political terms, integrated both with the United Kingdom and with the island of Ireland as a whole. And so this is seen as a really important moment not just for the U.K.-EU relationship to become better from this point onwards, but also for Northern Ireland an exciting opportunity.

INSKEEP: I'm just wondering that. Could this be really good for the economy of Northern Ireland, to be open to both sides?

HAYWARD: I mean, certainly that's what the U.K. and the EU were saying, that this is a tremendous opportunity. And we are conscious here in Northern Ireland that Joe Kennedy III has been appointed a special economic envoy by the president to Northern Ireland to try and encourage investment here, making the most of its unique situation. And the hope is that politically we can have some more stability now, as well as making the most of these new economic opportunities.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, is anybody pushing back hard on this?

HAYWARD: Certainly, there's been some resistance from strong unionists, from hard-line unionists about the whole implications of the protocol. They're trying to be convinced by the U.K. and the EU as to the fact that the economic opportunities can outweigh the challenges.

INSKEEP: Katy Hayward is a professor of political sociology at Queen's University in Belfast. And she joined us via Skype. Thanks so much.

HAYWARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.