Of all the difficult issues—citizens’ rights, existing financial obligations, future trading relationship, role of the European Court—that the ongoing Brexit negotiations present, the Irish border question is arguably turning out to be the most awkward of them all.
On the one hand, as per the Good Friday Agreement there’s a pressing need to retain a soft border between the Republic and the North. Current cross-border freedoms form an important part of the peace process and thus any tinkering with present arrangements could have some very unwelcome consequences. Furthermore, that Northern Ireland as a whole voted in favour of remain provides even more grounds for maintaining the status quo (or at least something that closely approximates it).
The problem, on the other hand, is that it’s difficult to see how both Brexit can be delivered and an open border maintained. If there’s customs and regulatory divergence between two economies, then border checks are unavoidable. Some kind of hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would have to be put in place else the entire island risks becoming a backdoor for by-passing customs, in a way which would undermine the constitutional and territorial integrity of both the UK and the EU.
The only way to avoid this would be if Britain remained part of the customs union and perhaps also the single market. That is, if post-Brexit there was continued alignment rather than increasing divergence. However for obvious reasons of self-interest this pick-a-mix approach is not something Brussels is at all willing to concede. If Britain got its way the remaining member states might get ideas and in time this could lead the whole European project to unravel, stretched to breaking point by a multitude of competing voices all clamouring for their own unique relationship.
Complicating matters even further is the sectarian divide that hangs over all things Northern Irish. Here the UK government is stuck between two competing political forces pulling it in two different directions. For while nationalists on both sides of the border have demanded some kind of special status for Northern Ireland as a way of maintaining an open border post-Brexit, this is something unionists are fundamentally opposed to, especially if it comes at the price of a hard border in the Irish Sea. For them a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is a most uncrossable of red lines, in no small part because they fear it will increase the chances of there being a united Ireland at some point in the future. And this, in turn, gives unionist politicians licence to sabotage.
The DUP in particular has threatened to bring down Theresa May’s minority government, propped up as it is by their support, if she compromises on the border question in a way which would see the Six Counties treated differently from the rest of the UK. Their view, shared by many on the right of the Conservative Party, is that out means out. No ifs, no buts, and most of all no exceptions. Anything less is seen as an attempt to remain in the EU by stealth. As a violation of the spirit of last year’s referendum if not the letter.
A major plank of the successful leave campaign, after all, was the principle of reclaiming control of national frontiers. An open border would be the exact opposite of that. And when you add into the mix concerns that granting Northern Ireland special status will provoke calls for similar treatment from other parts of the UK, the remain-voting areas of London and Scotland in particular; in addition to the fact that power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland have been deadlocked since January, with a return to direct rule from Westminster an ever-increasing possibility—you have a have a political minefield. A case of a weak and directionless prime minister and government, in a state of almost permanent crisis, finding itself up a creek without a paddle.
But is there any way out of this particular bind? Like with much else to do with Brexit, the answer—short of abandoning the whole process—is a creative, bespoke agreement with sufficient wiggle room to keep everyone on board, whether grudgingly or not. This is a great deal easier said than done, however. Indeed even the matter of timing has proven a major obstacle.
If EU negotiators are to be believed, the border question must be settled (at least in outline) before moving on to the subject of future trading arrangements. The position of the UK government, by contrast, is that it must be tackled in conjunction with the trade question. Not without reason they are thought to go hand in hand, with it being impossible to determine what will happen with the border until we have a better idea of what shape the overall relationship between Britain and the EU will take. The British position is also that post-Brexit there should continue to be an ‘invisible’ divide between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Brussels, meanwhile, has tended to highlight the impracticality of combining this with exiting the EU.
In light of all this recent developments, heralded by some as a breakthrough and even as a significant win for an otherwise embattled Prime Minster, merely seem a way to progress onto other matters in a manner that allows all parties to save face. Saying there will be no hard border either on the island or between it and the mainland, as is the current compromise, is either an attempt to kick the can down the road, an indication that post-Brexit Britain will remain in the EU in all but name, or perhaps both. Whichever’s the case, it’s not so much a solution reached as a problem deferred—an expedient fudge that may well come back to bite those involved.
In fact no sooner had the ink dried on this supposed agreement than David Davis provoked a minor diplomatic row by claiming it was more a ‘statement of intent’ than a ‘legally-enforceable thing’. The Brexit Secretary may have subsequently recanted. However his initial eagerness to break ranks doesn’t inspire much confidence in the negotiating prowess of those charged with delivering Brexit, especially given that when it comes to the Irish border question two decades of peace and cooperation now hangs in the balance.
Yet it’s precisely because so much is at risk that you have to think (hope?) a spirit of collaboration will eventually prevail and something will be agreed. Even if it turns out to be a last-minute, cobbled-together hodgepodge of a deal that pleases absolutely no one and remains problematic for years to come. That, perhaps, is the not-so-silver lining of this particular cloud.