Tony Connelly, the Europe Editor for RTÉ (Ireland’s public broadcaster), was the guest speaker at the 9th session of the Irish Speaker Series initiated by the Embassy of the Republic of Ireland and Central European University in 2014. The audience was welcomed by Laszlo Kontler, CEU’s Pro-Rector for Budapest, Ronan Gargan, Ambassador of Ireland to Hungary opened the event, chaired by our Co-Director Renata Uitz, Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law in the CEU Department of Legal Studies.
The purpose of the lecture series is to underscore and celebrate the links between Ireland and Hungary, as well as their common destiny within the European Union. As stated by Ronen Gargan,
“it is an opportunity to not only highlight commonalities between our two countries, but to explore areas where perhaps we do not always see entirely eye to eye as common EU members.”
Tony Connelly has been reporting on Europe and the EU since 2001, when he first went to Brussels as a European correspondent. During that time, he has had a front row seat observing European politics and the fundamental changes it has undergone in the last 15 years. One of those was the Brexit.
His lecture assessed the reset of the EU-UK relationship after the breakthrough of the Windsor Framework Agreement on the implementation of the Protocol in Ireland and Northern Ireland to the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement; the way Ireland is navigating a post-Brexit and changing Europe and what this means for Europe's place in the world in an ever more challenging geostrategic environment, not least due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union in 2016 has had far-reaching consequences that neither the government nor the Leave campaign considered, he argued. These include issues related to the open border and strong economic links between Ireland and Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Ireland viewed Brexit as threatening the peace process and all-island economy. Recognizing this concern, the EU made resolving the Irish border issue a prerequisite for Brexit negotiations. After extensive negotiations, the UK and EU agreed on the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allowed Northern Ireland to remain in the EU Single Market and Customs Union, thus avoiding the establishment of a hard border. Even so, this is still a controversial matter, he explained.
According to Connelly,
“the protocol was the most difficult part of the Brexit Withdrawal Treaty,
and the implementation of the protocol became even more tortured because Boris Johnson in particular reneged on key aspects of the agreement and triggered a breakdown in trust between the UK and the European Union.” However, “today, the mood is very different, and this is down to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the arrival of Rishi Sunak as the new British Prime Minister”.
The current geopolitical circumstances have compelled both factions to transcend the noxious politics of Brexit and endeavor to pinpoint common areas of concern. “I think part of the return of trust is down to the departure of Boris Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Liz trust, his successor,” he claimed.
Nevertheless, that is not to say that the Windsor Framework will not require a lot of attention or that there will not have to be a lot of intertwined commitments and responsibilities on both sides for it to work.
“The UK is going to have to meet various milestones in making the Windsor Framework work. And in turn, the EU will then gradually relax the checks and controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland,”
On the other hand, when it comes to how Brexit collided with the 1998 Belfast Good Friday agreement, Ireland saw this as a direct threat to all those achievements and gains made for the following reasons:
- “The Good Friday Agreement meant the removal of a militarized security border on the island of Ireland. When you combine that with the fact that both Ireland and the UK were in the Single Market and Customs Union, you had no regulatory or customs border either. So, by the time the 2000s came along, there was a virtual invisible border on the island of Ireland.”
- “Mutual EU membership had meant that British and Irish ministers were meeting regularly in Brussels and in Luxembourg and they had a new forum to develop relationships, sort out problems, build up a personal rapport and so on.”
- “The EU, a direct co-negotiator of the Good Friday Agreement, did put in billions of euros in peace money for Northern Ireland for reconciliation between two divided communities, the Loyalist stroke Protestant community and the Catholic stroke Nationalist community. A lot of this money went into regional areas along the border.”
In that sense, during the negotiation of Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, the EU considered Ireland's assessment of the potential hazards involved, thereby acknowledging the importance of their perspective. As a result,
“the EU made sure that the UK would not be able to negotiate its departure from the European Union until Ireland's concerns were met. That caused an awful lot of angst on the UK side because they felt that the Irish issue could be dealt with as part of the future trade relationship,”
Connelly pointed out.
“Because if you are talking about borders and customs, that is a trade issue, it is not a divorce issue. But the Irish government and the EU, I think as well, felt that if it was not dealt with in the divorce, then the Irish border could be a bargaining chip in the trade negotiations later,” he continued, adding that “in other words, if you do not give us a very close frictionless trade agreement, then what is going to happen to that border in Ireland?
Ultimately, after months of agonizing negotiations between the UK and the EU, a solution was arrived at.”
In the end, Brexit has resulted in strained relations among the United Kingdom, the European Union, Ireland, and Northern Ireland. The implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol aims to balance conflicting interests, but challenges and complexities persist, he argued.
Opportunities for Ireland and Northern Ireland exist, but navigating the road ahead requires ongoing dialogue, trust-building, and a commitment to finding mutually acceptable solutions. The support shown for the Protocol in Northern Ireland suggests its importance in maintaining peace and stability. As the situation continues to evolve, it is crucial to find sustainable resolutions that uphold the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and preserve the delicate balance achieved in the region, he concluded.