As the deadline for the UK to officially leave the EU draws ever closer, talks of the UK crashing out without securing a deal seem to be growing louder. What this would mean for the country is unclear, but both sides are determined to set a fallback plan relating to the UK’s only land border with the EU: the Irish border.
Why are both sides so determined? Why is it an issue?
From the late 1960s, a guerrilla war commonly known as the Troubles raged in the streets of Northern Ireland, as nationalists, people in favour of unification with the Republic of Ireland, of the extremist IRA fought against Irish unionist extremists, who were willing to fight to keep Northern Ireland within the UK. British troops were sent and the conflict subsequently claimed over 3,600 lives. Peace was eventually achieved with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the nationalists and unionists through a compromise.
Most notably, Northern Ireland would remain in the UK, but its people would be eligible for both Irish and UK citizenship. This meant that the hard border, the symbol of British occupation and oppression complete with towers, walls and patrols between UK and Irish territory, was no longer needed. Free movement was permitted across an almost invisible border, with around 30,000 people currently crossing it every day on their way to work and to visit their family. This is what Brexit threatens to undo if no deal can be reached, as a hard border preventing the free movement of goods and people would return. If this did happen, the so-called Brexit backstop would kick in, with the aim of stopping precisely this.
However, the backstop still has to be agreed between the UK and EU. And just like general Brexit talks, the negotiations for the Brexit backstop are filled with red lines and deadlocks. In short, neither side can agree with what they should do with the Irish border if they cannot agree on what to do with Brexit.
Firstly, you have the European position: Northern Ireland remains in the customs union, effectively putting an economic border between Britain and Northern Ireland, ‘down the Irish Sea’. Northern Ireland would have to conform to imposing tariffs on British goods as a result of this, and so the region would effectively be cut off from the rest of the UK. The UK government has said it cannot go down this route, as it would betray the unionists of the Good Friday Agreement, who want a close link with Britain. The DUP, whose 10 MPs prop up May’s government as she lacks a parliamentary majority, are among these. They have threatened to paralyse any domestic plans that the Conservatives may have in mind, saying that they do not want Northern Ireland to be treated any differently from England, Scotland or Wales. Theresa May has said that no British Prime Minister would ever agree to such a proposal that threatens the structure of the UK.
Then you have the UK’s position: the entire country stays in the customs union for a limited period instead. The EU opposes this plan, saying that it will, in fact, lead to a hard border in Ireland. This is because the plan relies on a future trade agreement being sorted during the backstop period between the UK and EU, which EU officials believe would never be able to keep Northern Ireland out of EU rules completely, whilst at the very same time avoiding a hard border in Ireland. From the EU’s perspective then, the UK’s plan, in fact, risks the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish peace process.
Some Conservative MPs also have doubts about the plan, mainly because of fears that the UK’s temporary stay in the customs union may end up not being temporary at all. May’s wording about the issues shows this. She told the House of Commons that she ‘expects’ it to expire in December 2021, which Boris Johnson picked up on: ‘the expectation of an end date is not the same as a definite end date’. With this, May’s plan also risks betraying Brexiters who will not settle for a soft Brexit that leaves the UK in the customs union permanently.
And finally, you have the potential (but not likely) compromise: the EU could accept May’s proposal if there is a so-called ‘backstop to the backstop’. In this scenario, the UK would stay in the customs union for a determined length of time, after which just Northern Ireland would remain, as Britain leaves. This does not do much to alleviate the deadlock, as a border would still be drawn down the Irish Sea – just later. Unsurprisingly, Irish unionists and the British government oppose this idea too.
Whichever way you turn, it seems that the problem of the Irish border is not going be settled anytime soon.