It has been a long time since the UK decided to leave the EU, yet a way has still not been found to make Brexit work on the island of Ireland, so it has been a case of continuing more or less as you were thanks to never-ending transition arrangements. However, it has been clear in recent days that there is now a mood to tackle the issues in a serious manner to arrive at a settled state in managing protection of the EU single market, alongside allowing goods to Northern Ireland flow unhindered from Britain.

This was originally provided for by the now controversial protocol that was agreed by the UK in haste without full consideration on how it might work. At the outset, the EU adopted a disinterested approach as it believed it had a binding deal and however it might be implemented was left to the UK and Northern Ireland authorities.

What the EU didn’t contemplate was that the UK government would adopt an approach of ‘we don’t like this so we won’t be bound by it’ and have now unilaterally commenced a legislation process to give effect to this.

This had, and still has, the potential to derail the entire Brexit Trade and Co-operation agreement, which provides for unlimited tariff-free trade – but nothing else – between the UK and EU.

It means that Irish beef and cheese can access the UK market in unlimited quantities tariff-free, while UK sheepmeat can likewise continue being exported to France and other EU countries without tariffs.

EU had the deal they wanted but can’t enforce it

The reason for the protocol was to allow cross border trade on the island of Ireland to continue as it was before the UK left the EU, in that it could continue not just without tariffs but without sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls on goods of animal and plant origin. This is what enables milk and lambs from the north to come south for processing, while pigs, cattle and carcase beef go the other way.

The problem is that the agreement says border controls are required for goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain and this has caused not just commercial but political furore.

Belfast port, where the controversial protocol checks take place on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

The recent moves by the EU and UK to foster better relations and get into the nitty-gritty of addressing the practicalities of these controls has been intensifying since the beginning of this year.

The smart money seems to be on a solution being found that both the EU and UK, as well as most traders, can live with and avoiding the nightmare of a trade conflict between the UK and EU. That has been the €1bn Brexit threat hanging over Irish farmers producing beef and cheese since the term ‘no deal Brexit’ first entered the vocabulary.

While there is a deal now, if there is even a partial breakdown, Irish beef and cheese would be vulnerable in any retaliatory tariff situation.

Political dimension

The main ambition of current talks between the EU and UK is to avoid this and provide a foundation for the UK to rebuild relationships with the EU that may lead to further discussions on freeing up trade. If they can find a solution to the Irish problem and managing the only land frontier, then that becomes a real possibility.

What is less certain is whether an EU-UK agreement on the protocol will work politically in Northern Ireland and lead to a restoration of the Stormont Executive. That would be the fervent hope of the British and Irish governments and ultimately, it is preferable that government is carried out by the people elected to do so.

However, the reality is that there have been several prolonged periods when the Executive has failed to operate for whatever reason and business continued to function. In fact, cynics would suggest that there have been few occasions – with the exception of managing the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 – that the local administration made any real difference at all.

If the EU and UK can reach a mutually satisfactory deal that protects their respective interests, that is what is important for farmers either side of the border, whose priority is the continuation of north-south and west-east trade.

The wider politics can be left to politicians to resolve in their own time.

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