International report

Can Northern Ireland survive the vaccine war in the wake of Brexit?

Audio 05:41
Spot the border: lorries and cars disembark from a ferry arriving from Scotland at the P&O ferry terminal in the port at Larne on the north coast of Northern Ireland.
Spot the border: lorries and cars disembark from a ferry arriving from Scotland at the P&O ferry terminal in the port at Larne on the north coast of Northern Ireland. AP - Peter Morrison

Maintaining an invisible border is crucial to the Northern Ireland peace process. The biggest conundrum in the Brexit negotiations was how to keep people and trade flowing across that virtual barrier after the UK left Europe, without establishing infrastructure.

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A compromise was found – a border in the sea. From 1 January, goods coming from Great Britain are checked at Northern Irish ports. This is now known as the Northern Ireland protocol. But the fragility of these arrangements has been dramatically exposed.

On 23 January  pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca informed the European Commission that, due to production problems, it would be cutting vaccine deliveries to the EU by 60 percent. Anger in Brussels was swift, particularly as the UK – where the company produces most of the vaccines with Oxford University – wasn’t suffering supply issues. The EU sensed foul play.

AstraZeneca claimed that it was serving the UK first because it signed a contract with the UK first. The EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides wasn’t convinced:

The European Union is 'not a butcher's shop!'

“That may work in a butcher’s shop,” she said, “but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.”

The European Commission announced export controls on vaccines. To ensure that none ended up in the UK, an emergency clause called Article 16 was invoked that suspends the special borderless trade with Northern Ireland. This effectively raised the prospect of re-imposing a hard border in Ireland without consulting the British or Irish governments.

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster called it “an incredible act of hostility.”

After frantic phone calls between London, Brussels and Dublin, the offending Article 16 was quickly rescinded. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted last week that mistakes had been made. Was this a one-off mistake? Or a permanent feature of Brexit?

Food delivery delays lead to shortages

In early January some supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland experienced minor shortages. Food deliveries from Great Britain were delayed as some retailers struggled to adapt to new health certification checks. The EU gave supermarkets a three-month grace period to manage the administrative burden. But will that be enough time?

The Northern Ireland agriculture minister Edwin Poots is not convinced. He told the BBC “if the current arrangement for supermarkets isn't extended in a few months' time, they will not be able to supply our hospitals and schools with food."

And then came the threats.

On 1 February, physical inspections of food consignments at the ports of Belfast and Larne were suspended. Graffiti and posters had appeared at Larne port. ‘No Irish Sea Border’ said one. ‘All Border Post Staff Are Targets’ said another. Rumours swirled that vehicle registrations of port workers were being recorded. Local and EU workers were withdrawn while investigations took place.

New target for old paramilitary groups?

During the Troubles, the IRA bombed checkpoints and customs posts along the land border. Will the new Brexit sea border  become a target of Loyalist paramilitaries? The police in Northern Ireland found no credible threat at the ports and drew no links with armed groups. Last week, port inspection staff returned to work.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that by being both part of the UK and the EU regulatory systems, Northern Ireland would get the best of both worlds.

But only six weeks after Brexit with food shortages, bitter disputes over life-saving vaccines and the spectre of paramilitary violence, that assessment now seems in doubt.

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