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Brexit reality stokes fears for the peace in Northern Ireland

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The deep anger among some pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland over post-Brexit trade barriers that cut it off from the rest of the United Kingdom is emblazoned along the road from Belfast to the mainly Protestant port town of Larne, write Padraic Halpin and Guy Faulconbridge.

Posters demanding “No Irish Sea Border”, “Scrap NI Protocol” and “EU Hands Off Ulster” cover much of the 35-km (20-mile) route, their opposition to the new trading arrangements emphasised by the flying of Britain’s Union Jack flag every few lampposts.

A dispute between Britain and the European Union over the implementation of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol - designed to prevent a “hard” Irish border - has raised fears that the outrage it has caused among some caught in the middle could spill over into violent protest in the coming months.

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“The only thing that gets any results in this country is violence or the threat of violence,” said Alex, a 72-year-old Larne resident who described himself as a “proper unionist”. He declined to give his surname.

“We are part of the United Kingdom, we were born British, we live British and we will die British.”

The British-run region remains deeply split along sectarian lines, 23 years after a peace deal largely ended three decades of bloodshed. Many Catholic nationalists aspire to unification with Ireland while Protestant unionists want to stay in the UK.

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Preserving that delicate peace without allowing the United Kingdom a back door into the EU’s single market via the border between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland was one of the most difficult issues of nearly four years of tortuous talks on the terms of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

The protocol aimed to solve this by keeping Northern Ireland in both the UK’s customs territory and the EU’s single market.

However, the subsequent disruption at Northern Irish ports to trade in everyday goods such as cheese originating in Britain since the UK left the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31 mean the matter is far from settled.

Unionists say that, in its effort to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland and so allay nationalist concerns, the Brexit deal has instead cut them off from the rest of the UK with an effective border in the Irish Sea.

‘STRENGTH OF FEELING’

Many unionists say they feel part of their identity is being erased.

This month, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups - who killed Catholics during the years of violence in what they saw as retaliation for Irish Republican Army (IRA) aggression - said they were temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement.Slideshow ( 4 images )

While they pledged peaceful and democratic opposition to the Brexit deal, the groups, which include the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando, warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a letter “not to underestimate the strength of feeling”.

David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents the views of loyalist paramilitaries, said a “Pandora’s box” of protest and political crisis would be opened unless the EU agreed to significant changes to the deal.

He said unionist anger was running at the highest level since the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which gave Dublin a consultative role in Northern Irish affairs and prompted mass protests and a rise in loyalist violence.

“The current leaderships of the loyalist organisations are under extreme pressure from, let’s just say, the young Turks who perhaps see an opportunity to go to war on their terms,” he told Reuters.

Britain acknowledged the depth of feeling on Friday, when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said unionist disillusionment with the deal could put the province “in quite a dangerous place in terms of stability”.

HEIGHTENED TENSIONS

The loyalist groups’ statement needs to be taken seriously, said Billy Hutchinson, a former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prisoner who is now the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a small loyalist political party with links to the UVF.

While Northern Ireland voted 56%-44% to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, many unionists, who largely backed Brexit, thought it would enhance their Britishness, according to Hutchinson.

Johnson’s government had pledged there would be no new barriers to trade within the UK.

“If there hadn’t been a pandemic, I’m absolutely confident that people would have gone on the streets,” said Hutchinson, who served 15 years in prison for the murder of two Catholic half-brothers in the 1970s.

“If the political parties on the unionist side don’t try to head that off by giving them some sort of hope, some sort of leadership, then you will have violence.”

Few believe the region will return to the bombings and tit-for-tat killings of the “Troubles”, the period that left more than 3,600 people dead. The loyalist groups, though not formally parties to the 1998 accord, endorsed the peace deal and decommissioned their weapons in the years that followed.

RETURN TO THE STREETS?

However, a repeat of the 2013 protests, when petrol bombs and guns returned to the streets of Belfast after a vote by local councillors to end a century-old tradition of flying Britain’s flag from City Hall, is seen as a distinct possibility.

Although the unionist anger is aimed mainly at London, outnumbered nationalists in towns such as Larne fear they could be the target if demonstrations turn ugly, according to James McKeown, a local councillor for the largest pro-Irish party, Sinn Fein, formerly the IRA’s political ally.

McKeown grew up in Larne but in 1998 his family were told by police to leave after their home was repeatedly shot at and petrol bombed. He moved to nearby Carnlough, a picturesque, mainly Catholic village where the Irish flag flies in the harbour.

“Unfortunately in towns like Larne, there is always that element of tension. Has it heightened it? Yes it has,” McKeown said. “There are a lot of people on both sides of the community apprehensive and fearful about where we could go from here."

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Brexit impact ‘will get worse’ with supermarket shop to cost more and some EU products vanishing from shelves

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The full impact of Brexit on both businesses and consumers will not be felt until next year with shortages set to worsen in sectors ranging from food to building materials, a leading customs expert has claimed, writes David Parsley.

Simon Sutcliffe, a partner at tax and advisory firm Blick Rothenberg, believes Government delays in implementing post-Brexit customs laws have “softened the impact” of the UK’s exit from the European Union, and that “things will get worse” when they are finally brought in from January 2022.

Despite leaving the EU on 1 January 2020, the Government has delayed many of the customs laws that were due to come into force last year.

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The requirement for pre-notification of arrival in the UK of agri-food imports will be introduced on 1 January 2022 as opposed to the already delayed date of 1 October this year.

The new requirements for Export Health Certificates will now be introduced even later, on 1 July next year.

Controls to protect animals and plants from diseases, pests, or contaminants will also be delayed until 1 July 2022, as will the requirement for Safety and Security declarations on imports.

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When these laws, which also include the customs declaration system, are brought in Mr Sutcliffe believes the food and raw material shortages already experienced to some extent – especially in Northern Ireland – will worsen on the mainland with some products disappearing from supermarket shelves for the foreseeable future.

Sutcliffe, who was among the first to predict the truck driver shortage and border issues in Northern Ireland, said: “Once these extra extensions come to an end we’re going to be in a whole world of pain until importers get to grips with it just like the exporters from the UK to the EU have had to already.

“The cost of the bureaucracy involved will mean many retailers will simply not stock some products from the EU any longer.

If you know your fruit delivery is stuck in a UK port for 10 days waiting to be checked, then you’re not going to bother importing it as it’ll go off before it even reaches the store.

“We’re looking at all kinds of products disappearing from supermarkets, from salami to cheeses, because they will just be too expensive to ship in. While a few boutique delicatessens may stock these products, they will become a more expensive and be harder to find.”

He added that the supermarket shop will also face steep price rises as the cost of importing even basic products such as fresh meat, milk, eggs and vegetables will cost retailers more.

“The retailers will not have much choice but to pass on at least some of the increased costs to the consumer,” said Sutcliffe. “In other words, consumers will have less choice and will have to pay more for their weekly shop.”

A spokesman for No 10 said: “We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border, which is why we’ve set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full border controls.

“Businesses will now have more time to prepare for these controls which will be phased in throughout 2022.”

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Europe ministers say trust in the UK at a low ebb

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Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, updating ministers on the latest developments, said that trust needed to be rebuilt and that he hopes to find solutions with the UK before the end of the year. 

European ministers meeting for the General Affairs Council (21 September) were updated on the state of play in EU-UK relations, in particular with regards to the implementation of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

Šefčovič updated ministers on the latest developments, including his recent visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, and ministers reiterated their support for the European Commission's approach: “The EU will continue to engage with the UK to find solutions within the framework of the protocol. We will do our utmost to bring back predictability and stability for the citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland and to ensure they can make the most of the opportunities provided by the protocol, including access to the single market.”

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The vice president said that many ministers had spoken in the debate at the Council meeting with concern over whether the UK was a trustworthy partner. French Europe Minister Clement Beaune said on his way into the meeting that Brexit and the recent dispute with France over the AUKUS submarine deal should not be mixed up. However, he said that there was an issue of trust, saying that the UK was a close ally but that the Brexit agreement was not being fully respected and that trust was needed in order to move on. 

Šefčovič aims to resolve all outstanding issues with the UK by the end of the year. On the UK’s threat to make use of Article 16 in the Protocol which allows the UK to take specific safeguarding actions if the protocol results in serious economic, social or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist or to a diversion of trade, Šefčovič said that the EU would have to react and that ministers had asked the Commission to prepare for any eventuality. Nevertheless, Šefčovič hopes this can be avoided.

Northern Ireland is already experiencing trade diversion, both in its imports and exports. This is due in large part to the very thin trade deal that the UK has chosen to pursue with the EU, despite being offered less damaging options. Any safeguarding measures must be restricted in terms of scope and duration. There is also a complicated procedure for discussing safeguarding measures laid out in annex seven of the protocol, which involves notifying the Joint Committee, waiting a month to apply any safeguards, unless there are extraordinary circumstances (which the UK will no doubt claim there are). The measures will then be reviewed every three months, in the unlikely event that they are found to be well grounded.

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Britain delays implementation of post-Brexit trade controls

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Britain said on Tuesday (14 Sseptember) it was delaying the implementation of some post-Brexit import controls, the second time they have been pushed back, citing pressures on businesses from the pandemic and global supply chain strain.

Britain left the European Union's single market at the end of last year but unlike Brussels which introduced border controls immediately, it staggered the introduction of import checks on goods such as food to give businesses time to adapt.

Having already delayed the introduction of checks by six months from April 1, the government has now pushed the need for full customs declarations and controls back to Jan. 1, 2022. Safety and security declarations will be required from July 1 next year.

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"We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border, which is why we've set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full border controls," Brexit minister David Frost said.

"Businesses will now have more time to prepare for these controls which will be phased in throughout 2022."

Industry sources in the logistics and customs sector have also said the government's infrastructure was not ready to impose full checks.

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