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LONDON – Half a decade after the referendum that electrified British politics, Brexit just won’t go away.
The fifth anniversary of the vote to leave the European Union will take place on Wednesday amid the prospect of early elections in Northern Ireland, a vote that could become a mini-poll on post-Brexit trade deals.
Enforcing Brexit was Boris Johnson’s main goal when he became British Prime Minister in 2019. In a relatively low-key statement for a notoriously exuberant leader, Johnson said Tuesday evening: “The decision to leave the EU may now be part of our history, but our clear mission is to use the freedoms that come with it to seek one to create a better future for our employees. “
Other actors in the Brexit saga are also marking the moment. The lobby group Best for Britain, which campaigned for a second Brexit referendum and now supports “the closest possible future relationship” with the EU, plans to project “messages of hope” onto buildings in the heart of Brussels on Wednesday evening, alongside the names of the citizens, who voted to remain in the EU or who now regret being left.
But if there is one place where the Jubilee is felt most strongly it is Northern Ireland. There, trade unionists continue to fiercely oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol, post-Brexit trade agreements that will bring the region to both the UK and EU internal markets at the expense of UK goods controls.
The resignation of the anti-protocol leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Edwin Poots, after just three weeks at the helm, increases the chances of a Brexit-dominated early election of the Northern Ireland Assembly this fall – months ahead of the expected May 2022 date .
Jeffrey Donaldson, the veteran DUP politician to be installed as the party’s new chairman this weekend after nominations are closed for the position on Tuesday, has vowed to oppose the post-Brexit controls carried out between the UK and Northern Ireland.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, warned that early elections could become a “referendum” on the Northern Ireland Protocol. He fears that an election campaign in Northern Ireland this summer would only create new instability after a tense annual Protestant marching season on July 12th.
“The idea that we are in the middle of it, in the short term, having an election that would, in a sense, be a referendum on protocol and some of the problems of division that we have seen, means that the elections would be based on polarization and division, rather than each other focus on policy change and governance to solve the problems in Northern Ireland, ”Coveney told RTÉ last week.
The DUP and other union parties have committed to abandon the protocol as soon as possible. Unionists are aiming to win enough seats in Stormont to withdraw the Northern Ireland Assembly’s support for the post-Brexit deal in an affirmative vote provided for in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (December 2024 at the latest), Republican Party representing Northern Ireland -Protocol supported as a necessary solution to the border problems created by Brexit, makes strong polls – a fact that could make the DUP hesitate rather than push for an early poll.
Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said that in any upcoming election, the people of Northern Ireland are likely to support a candidate who supports their views on the protocol. This is proven by a survey that she carried out in March together with her colleague David Phinnemore.
“Everyone in Northern Ireland – whether Leaver or Remainer, trade unionist or nationalist – feels hard hit by Brexit and also thinks that the other community did better than them,” she said. “So the unionists believe not only that they were betrayed by the British government with the protocol, but also that the nationalists benefited from it – that is, that the whole of Ireland’s economy is protected to some extent.”
However, although some members of the union assembly present the 2024 assent vote as an opportunity to abolish the protocol, in reality the vote will only affect Articles 5 to 10 of the agreement. These determine the new controls in Northern Irish ports and the wholesale trade in electricity across the island of Ireland. If the Assembly withdraws its approval of this part of the Protocol, the EU and UK government will have two years to negotiate new trade deals – which all sounds strikingly familiar.
“We would essentially be back to the tricky problem that haunted the Brexit negotiations,” said Hayward.
Esther Webber contributed to the coverage.
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