THE BLOG

What Is Happening With Northern Ireland And Brexit?

The British union is at is most tenuous moment since the Scottish referendum - and it’s all Theresa May’s fault

05/12/2017 09:09 GMT
Francois Lenoir / Reuters

It was all so utterly predictable.

The Irish demand, and Theresa May gives, Northern Ireland a special deal guaranteeing “regulatory alignment” between the province and the Republic. Nicola Sturgeon, Carwyn Jones, and Sadiq Khan demand the same deal for Scotland, Wales, and London. The DUP refuses to support said deal, throwing the stability of their confidence and supply agreement with the Tories - and therefore Theresa May’s whole government - into question. Theresa May backs down. Talks fall apart. Back to square one.

From the day after the referendum, I’ve said the trickiest part of the Brexit negotiations would be Northern Ireland. I’ve been right. But even I didn’t predict such a whirlwind day, which started out with the promise of progress and finally moving on to trade negotiations only to end back at square one.

In order to understand what’s happening, one must first understand the history and politics of the island of Ireland. If you already have a grasp on what’s going on, you can skip the next few paragraphs, but for international readers, this background is key. Ireland gained independence in 1921 following the Irish War of Independence. Six counties in the north of the island - Northern Ireland - which had been populated for centuries in part by British settlers and their descendants, opted to remain in the UK. The following decades (known as “The Troubles”) were marked with sectarian violence between the Irish Catholic nationalists and the Protestant Ulster Unionists. Finally, a truce and power-sharing agreement was negotiated, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This power-sharing agreement lasted until January of this year, when Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of the nationalist party Sinn Fein resigned in protest of a scandal involving First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Since then, the Northern Irish assembly has been dissolved and governance of the province has reverted to Westminster. British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election in the spring in which her party, the Conservatives, lost their majority but remained the largest party in the House of Commons. They entered a “confidence and supply” agreement with the DUP which guaranteed the DUP’s support on a vote-by-vote basis in exchange for a massive payout to Northern Ireland, therefore ensuring May’s continuance as Prime Minister. She, of course, got to work negotiating Britain’s withdraw from the European Union. It hasn’t been going so well. Which brings us to yesterday.

One of the most contentious and pressing issues in the Brexit negotiations is what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There hasn’t been a hard border (meaning border checks) for decades, and people freely move back and forth between the two countries. This has been vital to ensuring peace in the province. But with Brexit, that open border has been brought into question, even though both sides insist there will be no return to a hard border. Part of the problem is immigration from the EU, of course, but part of it is also customs. By leaving the EU Britain is probably (though I can’t say definitely) leaving the customs union and single market too - meaning different regulations will be placed on goods coming in and leaving the UK for the Republic. In order to ensure a hard border doesn’t up, the Irish taoiseach Leo Vardakar negotiated a “regulatory alignment” with Theresa May in which Northern Ireland would remain in line with the European Union - marking it out as different among the other constituent nations of the UK (England, Wales, and Scotland).

This was important for Mrs May, as the European Union has insisted that talks cannot move onto trade until the border is settled. So it’s understandable why this was met with cautious optimism from many of us watching these negotiations. However, it was short lived, as the deal outraged people back home in the UK. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones tweeted that “if one part of the UK is granted continued participation in the Single Market & Customs Union, then we fully expect to be made the same offer.” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted similar sentiments, all but saying they insist upon the same deal Northern Ireland gets. Thing is, Northern Ireland - or more specifically, the DUP - don’t want this deal. “We have been very clear,” Arlene Foster said. “Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom. We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom. The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not be compromised in any way.” Does Arlene Foster want a return to the Troubles? Probably not. Rather, her concern is far more to be that any “regulatory divergence” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK could further alienate an already remote (both physically and politically) province from the rest of Britain.

Meanwhile, it could also make a stronger case for Irish unification - why remain a part of the UK when economically you’re more aligned with the Republic? Anything that pushes Northern Ireland closer to unification is a non-starter with the DUP, which explains why they so quickly quashed the idea. That they were able to quash it is Theresa May’s fault. She cannot govern without the DUP, and interrupted her negotiations with the EU to go into crisis talks with the DUP. When she emerged, the deal was off the table and Britain was back to where it began. That Scotland, Wales, and London were all clamouring for the same deal didn’t help - and illustrates just how existentially divisive Brexit is - but make no mistake, it was the DUP which put the nail in the coffin.

Ireland won’t settle for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but the DUP won’t accept anything that alienates the province from the rest of the UK. Remaining in the single market and customs union seems the only way to ensure no hard border is created. Theresa May can’t allow this, though, if it costs her the support of the DUP. Should she be unable to negotiate a solution, the political crisis in Northern Ireland will deepen, and it will become more difficult to avoid a return to the sectarian strife of the past. Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales, and London, desperately want to remain in the single market and customs union.

If Northern Ireland is allowed to remain, they’ll expect the same. If the rest of England excluding London is the only part that leaves the single market and/or customs union, it puts those counties at a serious economic disadvantage. If none of the other nations are allowed to remain, it could bolster anti-Brexit sentiment and pro-independence feeling in Scotland in particular. What happens next is anyone’s guess. The only thing for certain now is that the British union is at is most tenuous moment since the Scottish referendum - and it’s all Theresa May’s fault.