Can (Northern) Ireland derail Brexit?

++ The BM Lowdown on the current Brexit flashpoint:
Either: The people of Northern Ireland accept a hard border.
Or: The UK government accept the entire UK remains in the EU Customs Union (like Turkey, without free movement of labour).
Ultimately, the UK government does not fall ++

As expected, the island of Ireland has indeed become the thorn in Brexit’s side. The DUP were unable to accept the text of the agreement, not least because they didn’t receive sight of it until the last minute. Arlene Foster has always been clear that Northern Ireland would prefer a soft border. She wrote a joint letter to that effect with then-Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the aftermath of the Brexit vote last summer, noting:

Northern Ireland had just voted to Remain in the EU, by 56%. Since then, the Unionist parties lost their majority in the recent NI Assembly election for the first time ever. Our correspondent BallyMoney points out that in the first Northern Ireland parliament of 1921, Unionists won 67% of the vote. In the first NI Assembly election, of 108 seats, 58 went to Unionists. Since then their share has been falling as support for Nationalists rose:

It’s no wonder Arlene took the soft border position. She has two constituencies: the whole of NI, and the Unionists. She will, however, always prioritise the unionists. Not for nothing is their war cry “No surrender”.

What are the positions of the other key players?

  • Theresa May needs to show “sufficient progress” in order to move onto the much-cherished sunlit uplands of trade talks by getting sign off from the EU at the European Council meeting on 14/15 Dec.
  • The UK Cabinet each have their own positions on Brexit, from Hard Brexiteer Beast BoGoveJo, to Soft Remainer Pragmatists like Spreadsheet Phil Hammond. But they are all united in their desire to remain in government and keep out Corbyn.
  • The Irish Prime Minister and the EU are united in extracting as much from the UK as possible while Theresa is desperate to move on.
  • The Republic of Ireland wants a soft border for economic and constitutional reasons
  • The DUP is adamant about remaining integral to the UK rather than moving closer to Ireland (and by association the EU).

So Theresa needs progress, and the EU have decided that means a solution to the Irish border. But Northern Ireland and the Republic could never agree on what it should be; both sides are tribally opposed to the preference of the other. In effect the spat between the two is a microcosm of the UK/EU row itself. What relationship do they really want to have with each other? Both the UK and the EU have effectively been sending their second into the fight. The EU empowered Ireland by giving them the EU’s veto; the UK government is beholden to the DUP because of the minority government and the maintenance of the United Kingdom (note Scotland et al have already called for their own version of ‘regulatory alignment’).

Unfortunately, it could turn into a fight to the death.

A hard border would see customs officers employed in some shape or form, with long lines of trucks and cars on the only land border between the UK and the EU. To avoid it, the UK would have to remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union. Theresa May vetoed this when she took over as PM, in order to win over her Brexiteer colleagues and the 52%.

How to square this circle?

  1. An almighty tweak to the language that can allow both NI and the RoI to convince their electorates that they didn’t surrender to the other
  2. A fudge which allows the can to be kicked down the road
  3. The DUP accept a hard border
  4. The DUP stand strong
    1. and either the UK Govt capitulates to a Customs Union
    2. or the UK Govt calls their bluff, agrees to a soft border and dares the DUP to vote them down, knowing the DUP would lose £1bn from their post-election confidence-and-supply agreement, not to mention damage to the economy of Northern Ireland – as well as the damage to the United Kingdom as this opens the door for Scotland etc to have their own regulatory regimes

The most likely of these is that the DUP accept a hard border. The Union must be preserved at all costs. That’s their number one goal. Although Theresa wants progress at the EU Council talks, she, and her Cabinet, would prioritise the continuation of their government at all costs. Even if that means accepting a compromise like a hybrid Customs Union.

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