Britain, EU postpone action on Northern Ireland
LONDON – Britain and the European Union have called for a truce in the “sausage wars”. But far from settled, this bitter dispute over breakfast ties raises thorny questions about the future of Northern Ireland.
After weeks of sometimes heated negotiations, the two sides agreed on Wednesday to delay by three months regulations banning shipments of sausages and other chilled meats from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
The delay is designed to give both sides time to resolve technical disputes in post-Brexit trade deals for the North, which straddle Britain and the European Union’s trading systems, demanding controls on goods flowing between the North and the rest of the UK.
It could also defuse tensions between trade unionists and their most vocal allies, the loyalists, in Northern Ireland, who want the territory to remain inside the UK. They have clung to the dispute to protest what they see as their growing alienation from the UK.
Loyalist marching season begins in 10 days, and there are fears of a new outbreak of violence in the North, which has been largely peaceful since the Good Friday Agreement ended decades of sectarian strife in 1998.
While the sausage trade issues aren’t that complicated – Britain might just adhere to European Union food safety standards – the political issues are, especially for the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who sees Northern Ireland as a litmus test of its willingness to diverge from Brussels.
“It’s kind of a proxy battle,” Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole said of the sausage feud. “Today we are witnessing a certain de-escalation, which is good and shows that it is a matter of choice. This could be solved with the stroke of a pen in London. But it is a question of symbolism.
Aligning with European food safety standards would be seen by Mr Johnson and other Brexiteers as a concession to the bureaucrats in Brussels. It could also complicate a future trade deal with the United States, which Mr Johnson has touted as a main Brexit dividend.
Moreover, analysts say stoking tensions over British sausages with the European Union is politically convenient for Mr Johnson with his pro-Brexit base at home. Mr O’Toole pointed out that food products – and more specifically meat – have often featured in battles between Britain and mainland Europe.
During a mad cow epidemic in the 1990s, when fearful Germans and French people stopped eating British beef, British tabloids made headlines in the ‘Ox War’ raging across the English Channel. . “Kohl’s beef blitzkrieg,” one said, referring to then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
When other European leaders urged Mr Johnson to resolve the latest dispute at the recent Group of 7 summit meeting, he gambled everything on the sausages, asking French President Emmanuel Macron: ‘How would you like French courts prevent you from moving Toulouse? sausages in Paris?
The UK government on Wednesday welcomed the European Union’s extension of chilled meat shipments, but made it clear it was seeking more permanent changes to its trade relations with Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and its consumers should be able to enjoy the products they have bought in Britain for years,” said David Frost, the minister responsible for relations with Brussels.
In truth, Northern Ireland would likely benefit from a UK sausage ban, as its own sausage producers would rush to fill the supply shortage. But as analysts note, it’s not about the sausage industry but about the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the legal deal that gives the North its hybrid status.
The protocol arose out of an agreement between Mr Johnson’s government and the European Union to avoid resuscitating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the bloc’s single market. He has become a hated symbol for trade unionists and loyalists, who claim he is creating a wedge between them and the UK.
Loyalists said on Wednesday that a three-month delay in the sausage ban would do little to prevent their drive to overturn the protocol.
“On the contrary, it showed how ridiculous the protocol is and made people even angrier,” said David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents paramilitary groups some say are stirring up unrest. “Why should a foreign bureaucracy dictate what products one British citizen can provide to another?” “
Mr Campbell said he still believed violence could erupt in Belfast and other cities on July 12, when loyalist bands march to commemorate William of Orange’s military victory over a Catholic king, James II, in 1690.
Opponents of the protocol suffered another setback on Wednesday when a Belfast High Court judge launched a legal challenge against him. Judge Adrian Colton ruled the protocol was legal and did not violate the terms of the Good Friday deal, dismissing a complaint filed by prominent Unionist politicians.
The problem for trade unionists and loyalists, experts said, is that there is no viable alternative to the protocol that would not hasten the outcome they least want – the reimposition of a hard border. between Northern Ireland and Ireland, ultimately accelerating calls for reunification.
“Do they want to go back to square one and consider the alternative, which is a hard border on the island of Ireland? said Bobby McDonagh, former Irish Ambassador to Britain. “If there was a hard border, the case for reunification and the speed towards it would increase. This is the dilemma of unionism.
The fallout from Brexit shocked Northern Ireland’s main pro-trade union political party, the Democratic Unionists, which ousted two leaders in the past three months. The party supported the deal that created the protocol but now wants it canceled. In a recent poll, four in five voters said they did not trust the party on protocol; 86 percent said they did not trust the UK government.
All of this has worked to the advantage of Sinn Fein, Ireland’s largest nationalist party, which promotes reunification and is rising in the polls even as unionists swoon. Sinn Fein, which opposed Brexit, argues that the UK government has no choice but to implement the protocol.
“Obviously there are issues that need to be addressed,” said Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, in a recent interview. “But the protocol is the only mitigation we have against the worst Brexit excesses. They signed it and now they have to get started.