Are Brexit trade deals giving Northern Ireland an Identity Crisis?

By Nicole McBride

Relationships between UK and EU businesses are under threat as attitudes harden during talks for a goods and customs border in Northern Ireland.

For the past four years, the creation of a customs and goods border between Northern Ireland and the south has been one of the most prominent topics in the Brexit negotiations. It is an ongoing struggle of knowing what could happen as trade deals develop and “trying to mitigate the biggest problems that could arise”.

The north and south of Ireland have always had a linked history, and for the past twenty years, from the Good Friday Agreement, that relationship has been a peaceful and amicable one.

George Mills, from the Irish Haulage Association, has been at the forefront of the Haulage industry since the beginning of the nineties. He has seen the effect that border control has had on the country, and how the haulage industry has worked to sustain and help this symbiotic relationship throughout the years.

Through his work with the Irish Haulage Association and the location of his home, in Donegal, George has witnessed what Brexit could do to this country if a customs border is put in place in the island of Ireland. That is why he has spent the last four years, trying to protect what the Good Friday Agreement created in the first place. A shared identity.

“What trade and commerce, and the transport of goods did is created and built- up relationships between people who never looked at who they were or what they were. It contributed to the peace process.”

During the last four years, George has seen certain aspects of the transport of goods trade shifting back to how he saw it in 1998 before the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

“If something physical was put between you and the other part of the island, it makes you focus on identity again.”

That is why in March 2020 George organised 110 freight lorries together to drive across the border in Donegal between Northern Ireland and the south to make a statement of solidarity and unity within communities. This garnered a lot of attention from the media and has “went a long way to provide evidence of what the majority of Northern Ireland want from the agreement”.

“What we wanted to do was to show what an open border looked like, compared to what it might be if it all stopped. It was a demonstration and it worked quite well.”

George is one of the few people in the goods and transport industry in Ireland who has seen the effects of a hard border before the GFA, after it was put in place and now that border patrol has become an issue once more.

“The problem is that even with no hard border, there will still be something in businesses that will be different than it is now because there is a chance of moving into another market.”

“It’s going to be an incredible extra expense in terms of transport companies compared to what it’s been like for the last 20 years.”

Although there is yet to be a final decision about a hard border on the island of Ireland, due to recent discussions about an internal markets bill, a customs border in the Irish Sea have already been set. More companies are having to employ further personnel for the amount of electronic and print paperwork that will be needed from 2021 and beyond.

Over these four years, George has worked with ‘Border Communities Against Brexit’ and hundreds of haulage companies to fight for the right for no customs on the island of Ireland. Doing everything from organising protests at the border, to writing a personal letter to Michel Barnier himself on behalf of the Irish Haulage Association and the community as a whole, against custom regulations at the Irish border.

Local politicians have joined the campaign throughout this time as well. In a rather entertaining meeting, Martina Anderson told Theresa May to “stick it where the sun doesn’t shine” regarding an existence of ‘any’ border between the North and the South.

In a letter to Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Head of Task Force for Relations with the UK, George says, “If you put a customs and regulatory frontier between two people who share the same identity, then you will inevitably make them focus on that identity and cause friction.”

“The shared identity was more recognised and cherished through business and commerce and most importantly through peace.”

For Communities and businesses throughout the island, the creation of the NI Protocol was a big milestone for Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.  The protocol was set up ‘to ensure that the progress made in the last 22 years is secured into the future’.

It is outlined in the agreement that the Protocol ‘achieves the necessary protections for the EU Single Market, while at the same time, and more importantly, protecting the territorial and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole, and upholding the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.’

As George explains in his letter; “The NI Protocol agreed and ratified, reassured the citizens that no Customs or Regulatory border would threaten that shared identity. However, to achieve that outcome a delicate balancing act had to be achieved and that was what was voted on and ratified in the International Treaty.”

According to the freight industry, the Northern Ireland Protocol will act as a ‘parachute’ even if there is a no deal in trade talks.

However, in the form of an Internal Markets Bill, the UK Government are “moving to appease the Brexit supporters” and are opposed to the opportunities that the NI Protocol is offering. This has led them to have created controversial clauses in the Internal Markets Bill.

In a statement to the Tory MP’s in September the PM, Mr Johnson said; “What we don’t need is the threat of a border down the Irish sea and the threat of a breakdown in the United Kingdom”.

In conclusion to the present situation on the horizon George explains to Mr Barnier;

“What is the lesser of two evils…Checks on the border or checks in the Irish Sea, it does not take a great deal of thought to say that a return to a Border in Ireland is by far the worse and that is what is at stake here at this critical time.”