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Ireland's history plays into post-Brexit trade deal

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

While the Brexit deal was enacted in 2020, decoupling the U.K. and the EU has not been easy. One complicated issue has been trade, especially between the U.K. and Ireland. That's because the island of Ireland is comprised of two parts - the Republic of Ireland, which is still in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. and which, because of Brexit, is now outside the EU. That's created issues with trade, and it's also affected some long-standing tensions in the region. That's because keeping an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has been key to keeping the peace after decades of violence that ended in the 1990s.

One of the people working on figuring out a way forward is Mary Lou McDonald. She's an Irish politician who serves as the president of the Sinn Fein Party and leader of the opposition in Ireland. She's also a member of the lower house of the Irish Parliament, representing Dublin. When we spoke, she told me about some of the challenges facing Ireland in the wake of the Brexit deal.

MARY LOU MCDONALD: When Britain was in the European Union, we had free and unfettered access right across the European market. So it made things very, very simple - free movement of trade and people and so on. And when Britain then voted to leave and took the decision to Brexit, it meant that that fluid movement of people and capital and services was compromised. And this was a big, big problem for us because, obviously, Ireland is a small island. We have, as you've set out, come through very considerable conflict. But we - 25 years ago, we found an answer in the Good Friday Agreement to manage and mediate that conflict, to end the political violence and to create something really strong and really, really precious. And we were very, very concerned, as a nation, that Brexit would mean what we called a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland.

HUANG: Well, I mean, there have been recent attempts to smooth some of these trade issues. Recently, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced what's known as the Windsor Framework. And so I'm wondering also, briefly, if you can, what would that change?

MCDONALD: Well, what it does is address what I've described to you as a smoothing out of some of the administrative and technical issues, and it will provide for green lanes and red lanes. It will make a differentiation of goods that come from Britain into the north of Ireland for that market as against goods that come onto the island of Ireland and therefore into the European system. So I think it's just a very sensible, simple administrative answer to what was becoming an awkward question.

HUANG: I mean, there are still some unionists in Northern Ireland - as you mentioned, this is a group that wants Northern Ireland to stay close with the U.K. - who do think that the Windsor Framework doesn't go far enough in removing trade barriers with Britain. And so I'm wondering, how do you respond to that criticism now, given how much it does do?

MCDONALD: Well, I would simply say the British government have negotiated this deal. It's their deal, and it is their prerogative. They are the negotiating partner. I would also say that it's not fair, frankly, for one party to hold the rest of society to ransom in this way and to leave us in this ongoing limbo. I mean, all of us - I mean, it's the case in the United States of America. It's the case in Europe, which has war now, again, on our continent. We have lived through just the most extraordinary cost of living crisis, the likes of which we haven't seen for a couple of generations. And I don't think it's reasonable. I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's sustainable, in circumstances like that, for elected people, who are elected to govern, to refuse to govern and to boycott those institutions.

HUANG: So ending the partition or, you know, unifying Ireland with Northern Ireland has been the primary goal of your party, Sinn Fein, basically for as long as it's existed. So I'm wondering, do you think that you're closer to that goal now than you have been in the past?

MCDONALD: Absolutely - and not least because of Brexit. I mean, I think when Brexit happened and when people in the north of Ireland voted to remain but were forced to leave, a lot of people who wouldn't - you know, wouldn't be particularly political, who may not have a particular view on the national question, on the constitutional question, certainly were faced with asking themselves, well, what kind of country do I want to live in? And what union do I want to be part of? Do I want to be part of a union with Britain that's insular, inward-looking, isolated, or do I want to be part of a European Union, which is expansive and outward-looking?

But we also have a situation where the demographics on the island have changed. The demographics in the north have changed. The northern state, when it was created, was designed specifically, a century ago, to ensure that there would be a perpetual unionist majority. It was gerrymandered in that way. But last May, for the first time, Sinn Fein emerges as the biggest party and my colleague Michelle O'Neill as the first minister. That was never, ever supposed to happen. That was never in the script.

So we see all of the signals of change. And our job now, as political leaders, is to harness and guide and shape and fashion that change in a way that is constructive, in a way that is inclusive, democratic and peaceful. So we have a lot of work to do. And we've been saying to friends and collaborators here in the United States that there is no question but that us finishing our next leg of the journey, that we will need the United States to partner with us again, as they always have.

HUANG: Mary Lou McDonald, thanks so much for joining us.

MCDONALD: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.