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On the farms and high streets of Northern Ireland, the protocol is more than a political row

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BELCOO, Northern Ireland — From the doorstep of his frontier farmhouse, Hugh Maguire can see Northern Ireland’s special Brexit trade deal working in real time.

His cows and calves graze in nearby British pastures, his ewes and lambs on the heathery Irish hillsides beyond. While his home sits — barely — within the boundaries of Northern Ireland, on the U.K. side of the line, much of his 241-hectare farm stretches into the EU turf of the Republic of Ireland next door.

“See the high bushes?” Maguire said, pointing at a hedgerow of yellow-flowered gorse. “That’s the border.”

Ever since the U.K. narrowly voted in 2016 to leave the EU, Maguire has been braced for the moment when post-Brexit trade restrictions would tear his border-straddling business in two. The Withdrawal Agreement’s protocol for Northern Ireland prevented such a schism, permitting thousands of northern farmers like Maguire to keep selling freely into Irish and wider EU markets, as well as into Britain.

But London’s new bill to override the protocol — defended by Boris Johnson as an essential step; denounced by Brussels and Dublin as an illegal flouting of an international treaty — threatens again to transform those thorny shrubs into the front line of a trade war.

“Being able to keep selling into the south and into Europe, when Britain can’t any more, has been a real advantage,” Maguire said. “We hope England and Brussels can sort out their problems, but it’s not looking good. The north could lose its access to the EU market. Bringing beef, lamb and milk from the north could be stopped. It could end up very bad.”

Such fears are growing in parts of Northern Ireland, where arguments over the protocol are stoking age-old sectarian divisions. And they’re complicating efforts to revive a cross-community government run jointly by British unionists and Irish nationalists, a core goal of the region’s 24-year-old peace accord, the Good Friday Agreement.

But while Irish nationalists like Maguire have embraced how the protocol makes trade easier with the rest of Ireland than with the rest of the U.K., for unionists — who mostly backed Brexit, and reject closer links with the south — that’s precisely the problem.

“No surrender”

The protocol avoided any imposition of EU controls along Ireland’s meandering 310-mile border by shifting them to Northern Ireland’s ports. Rather than deal with that new bureaucracy, however, an estimated 200 producers and distributors in Britain chose simply to abandon Northern Ireland’s somewhat peripheral market altogether.

Supermarkets and other retailers have kept shelves full, at least in part, by striking new supply deals with firms in Ireland and across the EU. These changes have made the weekly grocery shop a constitutionally unsettling experience for some unionists.

“Just look at this here: An Irish tricolor … A Europe flag … Another Irish tricolor … I don’t see any Union Jacks in my trolley, do you? This looks like the opposite of Brexit,” said Colette Armstrong, a shopper inspecting the origins of her purchases outside a supermarket in Lisburn, a Belfast suburb that hosts the British army’s provincial headquarters.

“I can’t help but feel like the protocol is pushing us into an economic united Ireland. It’s why no unionist should support it,” she said.

On nearby streets, Protestant residents are already erecting British and Ulster flags by the dozen. They will soon be joined by Orange Order arches featuring the British crown atop an open Bible, and banners embossed with popular stubborn sentiments: “No surrender.” “Not an inch.” “What we have, we hold.”

Reflecting that mindset, Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson is blocking the formation of a new power-sharing government with the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party following last month’s Northern Ireland Assembly election. Donaldson says he will relent only once London passes its protocol-breaking bill and permits British goods earmarked for Northern Ireland to avoid all scrutiny.

Reality check

In many cases, however, that’s already happening.

British authorities have never rolled out proper facilities or sufficient staff to implement the required checks at Northern Ireland’s ports, where officials as long ago as 2019 had identified the need to build border control posts and hire scores of extra veterinarians and inspectors. The Democratic Unionists, who oversee Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, blocked both steps as part of their anti-protocol agenda.

“Morale is rock bottom,” said one port official, speaking on condition he wasn’t identified by name or specific workplace, having been instructed not to speak to journalists. “We know we’re not doing the job we’re supposed to do, but we don’t have anywhere near the resources we would need. It’s beyond a joke. We end up waving things through unchecked. The people in power know this and don’t care.”

That downbeat assessment aligns with a highly critical report by EU auditors last summer, identifying widespread failures in sanitary screening at the ports. The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture quietly published those findings late on a Friday evening, seven months after the audit had taken place.

The DUP and Conservative government in London have repeatedly argued that the checks demanded by the EU are impossible to deliver, even though such checks since early 2021 have been in full force a 90-minute drive south at the port of Dublin. There, officials who spent three years preparing for a no-deal Brexit invested more than €30 million on lands and screening facilities, IT systems and staff to keep trade flowing with Britain.

By contrast, Britain in March 2021 simply started breaking its protocol agreements, unilaterally postponing the rollout of previously agreed steps, including requirements for customs declarations and export health certificates, and restrictions on chilled meats. Such indefinite extensions of “grace periods” have minimized the loss of British brands and products on Northern Irish shelves.

Supply and demand

That’s been the experience of artisan food seller Mark Brown, whose Belfast shop featured in early 2021 headlines claiming that the protocol meant no more Stilton, the best-known blue cheese of England.

Fast-forward a year and, like so many other fears at the time, Brown’s Stilton crisis turned out to be a supply blip caused by a confused London supplier. Today, that supplier does the required paperwork without fuss and its Stilton remains a top seller at Brown’s Arcadia shop on Belfast’s well-heeled south side.

“We encountered supply problems only at the start of the Brexit situation. A lot of the English companies went: ‘Uh oh, we don’t know what we’re doing in Northern Ireland.’ That meant a lot of chasing around trying to get stuff from other providers. But in fairness I haven’t had much trouble since then,” said Brown, the third generation in his family to run the shop dating back to 1933.

Like many retailers, he’s turned to Dublin to patch any supply losses from English suppliers unwilling or unable to do protocol paperwork.

“We used to buy quirky things from wee independents in Britain, but that’s all gone now. They couldn’t figure out the protocol hassle and just quit what is, to be fair, a very small market,” Brown said.

He’s compensating with an ever-changing variety of seasonal Irish and continental fare. This month’s newcomers include sheep’s cheese from County Mayo, Pecorino from Sicily, and flower-coated Alp Blossom from Austria.

“The protocol means we’ve no restrictions on EU goods,” he said. “The grace periods mean the main GB [Great Britain] suppliers are still shipping everything normally.”

While the high cost of fuel is restricting all firms’ delivery frequencies, he said, the protocol itself is not causing significant problems — despite unionist politicians’ claims of crisis.

“Politicians are looking for votes. They’ll say whatever they want the voter to think. That’s part of the problem,” Brown said. “I’m happy enough as long as the can’s kicked eternally down the road. I’m only concerned if GB and the EU start getting nasty with each other. Then I’m in trouble.”

The border farmer Maguire said his business has never been better thanks to the protocol’s stimulation of all-Ireland trade.

Before post-Brexit trade rules went live in January 2021, cows destined for a slaughterhouse in the south typically fetched barely £800 (€950) at auction. Now they’re topping £1,400 (€1,600) apiece.

“I left school before the age of 14 and have been farming these hills ever since. For most of that time it’s been a matter of survival,” said the 66 year old. “But these last few years — I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s great trade.”

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