The Washington Post - USA (2020-09-16)

(Antfer) #1

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 16 , 2020. THE WASHINGTON POST EZ RE A


BY AMANDA FERGUSON
AND WILLIAM BOOTH

belfast — B oris Johnson is mov-
ing forward on his threat to over-
ride the Brexit withdrawal agree-
ment with the European Union —
a move that every living former
British prime minister warns
against — and the people of
Northern Ireland again find
themselves fearful that decisions
made in London and Brussels
could upend the hard-won peace
and prosperity on their island.
Britain will leave the European
Union at the end of 2020, with or
without a new free-trade deal,
Johnson promises. With just over
three months to go before the end
of a transition period, a pact be-
tween the sides seems as far away
as ever. Relations between Eu-
rope and Britain have grown
shouty, underlining the high
stakes of the showdown, as Brit-
ain and Europe both struggle to
recover from deep pandemic re-
cessions.
Rachel Powell grew up in South
Armagh, where during the Trou-
bles a hard border between
Northern Ireland and the Repub-
lic of Ireland was patrolled by
British troops, often attacked by
Irish republican militants. She
said she’s deeply concerned about
what will happen next.
“The British government has
not got a clue about what it is like
to live on the border, and it is
again using it as a political foot-
ball,” said Powell, a lobbyist with
the Women’s Resource and Devel-
opment Agency in Belfast.
The 1998 Good Friday Agree-
ment brought peace to Ireland —
and today the line marking the
boundary between Northern Ire-
land and the Republic of Ireland
is invisible.
Powell said border communi-
ties are “horrified” over the un-
certainties and brinkmanship of
Brexit.
In the past week, Johnson
started to deploy martial lan-
guage, asserting that the E.U. is
plotting to “carve up our country”


and to choke off food supplies
with destabilizing new barriers
between Great Britain and North-
ern Ireland.
“Unless we agree to the E.U.’s
terms, the E.U. will use an extreme
interpretation of the Northern
Ireland protocol to impose a full-
scale trade border down the Irish
Sea,” Johnson wrote in the Tele-
graph newspaper.
Irish Foreign Affairs Secretary
Simon Coveney dismissed John-
son’s claim that Europe wanted to
“blockade” Northern Ireland as
“totally bogus.”
Europeans are livid that John-
son has introduced a bill before
Parliament that would breach key
parts of the Brexit withdrawal
treaty, an agreement Johnson
signed only nine months ago, call-
ing the pact “historic” and “fan-
tastic.”

The deal seeks to finesse trade
and customs issues to enable
Northern Ireland to exit along
with the rest of the United King-
dom but to preserve easy trade —
and psychological ties — with the
Republic of Ireland, which will
remain part of the E.U. In the
absence of a free-trade deal, there
would probably have to be some
kind of controls between north
and south to levy tariffs and quo-
tas.
Chief E.U. negotiator Michel
Barnier said the Northern Ireland
protocol signed last year repre-
sents no threat to the integrity of
the United Kingdom. He tweeted,
“We agreed this delicate compro-
mise with [Boris Johnson] & his
gov in order to protect peace &
stability on island of Ireland. We
could not have been clearer about
the consequences of #Brexit.”

Martin O’Brien is a veteran
peace-building activist from
north Belfast, who worked to en-
sure that strong human rights
were included in the G ood Friday
Agreement. “Brexit — and this
government’s particular form of
Brexit, a hard Brexit — was em-
barked on with no regard to the
consequences for Northern Ire-
land,” he said.
O’Brien called the withdrawal
agreement signed by the U.K. and
E.U. last year “a carefully con-
structed mechanism to try to
minimize the worst consequenc-
es” of Brexit.
“Now the government has de-
cided to go back on the compro-
mise and, again, that is hugely
destabilizing,” he said.
Queen’s University Belfast pro-
fessor Katy Hayward said, “We
should be familiar with this by

now, the stirring up of a political
storm over Northern Ireland and
its place after Brexit, but we are
no less weary of it.”
She said that “the anxieties are
only growing.... We face the
prospect of the U.K. flagrantly
breaking international law and
using Northern Ireland’s position
as justification for it. This sets a
whole new precedent. And it
bodes very badly for peace.”
During the Troubles, more
than 3,500 people were killed,
over half of them civilians.
Brandon Lewis, Johnson’s min-
ister for Northern Ireland, admit-
ted to the House of Commons last
week that the new bill to amend
the Brexit deal with Europe will
“break international law,” but, he
said, only in a “specific and limit-
ed way.”
Johnson’s move has set off

alarms in the U.S. Congress, with
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-
Calif.) warning that today’s open
border between north and south
must be preserved at all costs.
Undermine the Good Friday pact,
Pelosi said, and “there will be
absolutely no chance of a
U.S.-U.K. trade agreement pass-
ing the Congress.”
If Britain and Europe are un-
able to sign a trade deal by year’s
end, then World Trade Organiza-
tion rules would apply to goods
traded between the E.U. and the
U.K., with tariffs and quotas lev-
ied in both directions. Supply
chains 40 years in the making
could be derailed.
On the island of Ireland, there
is growing anxiety that Johnson is
hurtling toward a no-deal Brexit.
“Securing a ‘zero tariff, zero
quota’ free-trade agreement with
the E.U. remains critical to the
future of U.K. businesses,” said
Ann McGregor, chief executive of
the Northern Ireland Chamber of
Commerce and Industry. “We
urge ministers to redouble their
efforts to reach a comprehensive
agreement with our largest trad-
ing partner at a crucial time in the
negotiations.”
Former British prime minis-
ters Tony Blair and John Major
joined forces to condemn John-
son’s attempt to override the
B rexit agreement, calling it
“shameful.” They urged lawmak-
ers in the Labour and Conserva-
tive parties to vote down the bill.
“It raises questions that go far
beyond the impact on Ireland, the
peace process and negotiations
for a trade deal — crucial though
they are. It questions the very
integrity of our nation,” the pair
wrote in the Sunday Times.
Since then, the bill cleared an
initial vote in the House of Com-
mons.
Sammy Wilson, a senior figure
in the Democratic Unionist Party
in Northern Ireland, said his
group will table amendments to
Johnson’s bill. But he dismissed as
“utter bunkum” the former prime
ministers’ worry that the Irish
peace could unravel.
Wilson said Johnson’s bill will
make it easier for Northern Ire-
land to do business with Great
Britain with less paperwork.
william.booth@washpost.com

Booth reported from L ondon.

Fear in N. Ireland as Johnson threatens E.U. over Brexit


CHARLES MCQUILLAN/GETTY IMAGES
Northern Ireland’s Foyle Port is a key gateway to the Republic of Ireland for commerce and tourism. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
says the E.U. is plotting to “carve up our country” with a trade compromise he signed nine months ago, when he called it “fantastic.”

Premier seeks to break
deal despite worries over
peace at the border

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