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ANY notion that Brexit is disappearing as a major political issue in Britain seems to be contradicted almost every day.
Today, it was the turn of the North of Ireland to propel the issue into the news headlines, with Brexit Minister David Frost admitting that the British government has underestimated the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on trade relations between the province and the rest of the UK.
Yet the problems that would arise from trying to square this particular circle could have been clearly forseen.
Once the principle of Northern Ireland’s continuing alignment with EU single market rules had been accepted in the 2019 UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, having first been conceded by previous prime minister Theresa May, implementing the provisions of the protocol was rendered problematic in the extreme.
Either the UK-EU regulatory border should have been set to shadow the border between the North of Ireland and the Irish Republic, with the former part of a UK single market only; or the UK-EU regulatory border would have to be drawn in the Irish Sea between the North of Ireland and Britain, if the former was to stay in the EU single market.
The first option would have been operable without any restoration across Ireland of a “hard border” with its cameras and customs posts, although not without considerable problems of registration, administration and EU acquiescence.
The second option — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s preference — was supposed to have been facilitated by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
However, the blockages, bottlenecks and bureaucratic burdens that have arisen from airport and seaport checks in the North of Ireland on goods arriving from Britain are causing real hardship for consumers and business.
It should not be forgotten that these checks are insisted upon by the EU, not by the British government, which has unilaterally extended the suspension of checks on food imports into the North of Ireland from Britain.
The checks are to ensure compliance with EU regulations on foodstuffs and agricultural products, medicines and the like.
The EU Commission is currently taking legal action in order to force the introduction of such checks in line with its interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Unionists have turned against the Tory government because they detest the drawing of the UK-EU regulatory border down the Irish Sea.
They are fully aware of the aburdities of the current arrangements, but they fear the underlying logic of the only long-term, permanent solution.
This is for Ireland north and south to be united in a single economic market, in a sovereign Ireland which can negotiate its own trading and commercial arrangements with Britain and the other states of Europe and the world.
Sections of the left and the republican movement in Ireland have always recognised that the Brexit referendum result strengthens the case for Irish unity and independence and welcomed it accordingly.
What is needed now is for current UK-EU talks to reach a settlement based on the recognition of an “equivalence” of standards that will minimise the need for checks.
The EU should halt its legal action and diehard Remain intransigents should drop their opportunist enthusiasm for preserving a union between Britain and the North of Ireland which — as James Connolly warned more than a century ago — has spawned a “carnival of reaction” in both parts of Ireland ever since.
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