Ireland’s unique position as the sole nation to border the United Kingdom makes it a key player in the Brexit negotiations. Not only that, but Ireland is the 5th largest destination nation for UK exports, while 13% of Ireland’s exports, or $16.4bn worth of goods and services travel the other way.
The resolving questions surrounding the future border arrangements has been essential from Ireland’s perspective during Brexit negotiations. The Republic of Ireland’s prioritisation of this matter was no more clearly expressed than in the Irish government’s Brexit strategy paper published in May 2017. The paper spelt out Ireland’s Brexit negotiation priorities:
- ‘Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland’
- ‘Acknowledgement by the EU and the UK of the need to respect the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement through the withdrawal process and thereafter’
- ‘Continued EU engagement in Northern Ireland’
- ‘Protection of the unique status of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland’
Under the Northern Ireland peace settlement, the border is made as invisible as possible. The language used within the Irish Brexit strategy paper is unequivocal about the consequences of this status quo ending:
Any reintroduction of a visible, “hard” border on the island of Ireland would have a deeply adverse impact on Northern Ireland and in particular on the people who frequently cross the border or live in close proximity to it… The disappearance of physical border crossings and checkpoints is both a symbol of and a dividend from the success of the peace process
All sides have stated their commitment to avoiding a hard border following Brexit. However, working out such an arrangement has been significantly hampered by two factors of Prime Minister Theresa May’s own making.
Firstly, her Lancaster House speech of January 2017 committed the UK to leaving the European single market and customs union. With Ireland remaining in the EU and the UK leaving the customs union, the need for a way to check goods travelling across the border becomes paramount, otherwise the whole European customs union is seriously compromised. This is far from easily compatible with the goal of maintaining a ‘frictionless’ border on the island of Ireland.
Secondly, May’s calling of a snap general election resulted in the Conservative Party losing its parliamentary majority and requiring the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) support to govern. The DUP wants to maintain the current border arrangements, but opposes a regulated border emerging between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This hinders the solution of some UK ministers of a ‘wet’, sea border between Ireland and Britain to provide the required customs regulation and keep a ‘frictionless’ border on Ireland.
Theoretically, the UK could unilaterally declare the border open. However, under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules the UK would need to treat the rest of the world the same, leading to a flood of cheap imports into the country, undercutting British-made goods and services.
Ireland’s current government is led by the openly gay and youngest-ever Irish Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar (pictured above). He heads a Fine Gael minority government supported in key votes by its old political rivals, Fianna Fail. Successful lobbying by Varadkar and his predecessor, Enda Kenny, ensured the EU backed Ireland’s position of vetoing moving onto trade negotiations if they deemed that ‘sufficient progress’ with the border issue hadn’t been made.
Although International Trade Secretary and Brexiteer Liam Fox argued no final deal on the border arrangement could be reached until the nature of the future UK-EU trade relationship was known and by early December it was clear an agreement had to be reached on the issue before trade talks. Meanwhile, a potentially highly disruptive snap general election in Ireland was averted when Varadkar’s deputy, Frances Fitzgerald, yielded to Fianna Fail pressure to resign over her handling of a whistleblower exposing corruption in the Irish Police.
Agreement seemed to have been reached on the 4th December when, according to a leaked draft of the agreement document, the UK government committed to ‘continued regulatory alignment’ to help maintain the existing border arrangement. However, it appeared that the DUP hadn’t been properly consulted and rejected the proposed wording, opposing any arrangement where Northern Ireland was treated differently to the rest of the UK.
The following week, the DUP were prepared to accept phrasing which committed the UK to ‘full alignment’ with EU single market and customs union regulations, paving the way for moving onto phase two of Brexit talks in the new year.
The Irish Times review of Ireland’s role in Brexit negotiations during 2017 concluded that it marked a ‘significant triumph’ for the Irish government that the border issue had featured so prominently.
However, it remains far from resolved. The phrase ‘full alignment’ is a fudge: multiple interpretations can be made of it, ranging from the UK fully abiding by single market and customs union rules and yet not being a member, to abiding by more or less the same rules and restrictions with variation in certain areas.
It’s difficult not to conclude that the likeliest reason for a possible ‘no deal’ UK crashing out of the EU scenario would be an inability to satisfactorily unknot the Irish border issue. This most complicated and politically sensitive of issues simply has to be resolved in a way that’s acceptable to the UK government, Ireland, the EU and the other 26 EU nations concerned about customs border security post-Brexit, and the Northern Irish political parties, particularly the DUP.
More pitfalls exist on the Irish border issue than any other Brexit topic, even now, following the seemingly successful compromise reached before Christmas, of ‘full alignment’.