Brexit: The Future of the Irish Border

By Ryan Thiele

In a public debate that has engulfed the careers of two Prime Ministers, split parties and the public, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the United Kingdom’s parliament voted to put off Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly negotiated deal with the Union until the Brexit withdrawal is delayed and given a new date. Three years after a referendum to leave the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK) still has not detached from the bloc and the ‘Brexit’ issue seems to be on a path towards a hard withdrawal, an exit without any trade deal in place. It seems, three years later, that the issue will never produce an outcome that every faction can agree to. What is holding back the negotiators and politicians from agreeing?

Though there are a multitude of factors contributing to the halting of Brexit, one of the largest issues at the center of the debate regarding leaving the EU is the Ireland-UK border, a roughly 300-mile border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a country/province within the United Kingdom situated in the northeast corner of the Irish island. Should the UK officially detach from the EU, there would officially exist a border between Ireland, an EU member state, and the UK. The border is contentious and has a long history: decades earlier it had been grounds for violence between Irish Nationalists and Unionists. Today it currently features a product of liberal economics, an open border between the two countries, a foundational attribute of European trade. To understand why the border is halting Brexit, it is important to first understand the bloody history of the Irish border.

A Short Overview of the Troubles

For 30 years, Irish Nationalists and Unionists fought in Northern Ireland for the country’s position: would it join Ireland and unite the island under one banner, or would the region continue as a ‘country’ of the United Kingdom with England, Scotland, and Wales? The conflict was fueled by historical and ethnic tensions that eventually spilled over, with religion playing a large part. Unionists, who were predominantly Protestant, wanted to remain a part of the UK, while Nationalists, who were mostly Catholic, favored uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

Paramilitary groups began action in the 1960’s and 70’s on each side, notably the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) for the Unionists and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its two factions, Provisional IRA and Official IRA, on behalf of the Nationalists. The conflict was noted for its bombings, civilian casualties, riots, and attempted shutdown of the Catholic civil rights movement. The British Army was deployed to restore order to the region and is best remembered for the events of “Bloody Sunday,” where soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment shot 28 people at a protest against the internment of suspected IRA soldiers. The Irish government was not free from unfortunate events either: there was public outcry for not stopping the IRA bombing the British Embassy in 1972.

“The Troubles” ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Agreed upon by the UK, Ireland and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, it discussed disarmament of the paramilitary groups, civil rights, and set up the possibility of Irish integration should Northern Ireland vote to join its southern neighbor. The open border between the two countries is not due to the agreement, but rather due to the UK and Ireland both being members of the European Union. The freedom of movement for goods, services, and people between the two countries has helped reduce tensions, but with the possibility of an enforced border on the horizon, conflicts between Nationalists and Unionists could flare again.

Brexit and the Border

Previous Brexit plans have stalled over a hard vs soft border. With a soft border, relations would remain the same. Goods and people can move as they please between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but a hard border means that the UK, no longer in the same economic union as Ireland and most of Europe, would have its goods subjected to European regulations and customs checks and vice versa. The consensus surrounding the definition of a “hard border” states that should the UK leave, checkpoints would have to be established to monitor the flow of people and goods and ensure that regulations are being enforced on both sides.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, stated: “If you were to push me to speculate on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it is pretty obvious you will have a hard border, and our commitments to the Good Friday agreement and everything we have been doing for years with our tools, instruments, and programmes will have to take inevitably into account this fact.”

Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as Prime Minister this year when May stepped down after her failure to pass Brexit deals in Parliament. Her deal was noted for its “backstop,” a plan to keep the UK in the European Customs Union for an indefinite period following Brexit until a deal could be hashed out. Brexiteers denounced this action as limiting the UK’s sovereignty while receiving little to no benefits. Meanwhile, in order to keep the peace in Ireland, the EU has proposed a deal where Northern Ireland would remain within the European Customs Union while Britain, containing Scotland, Wales, and England, left. Boris Johnson, noted for his unwavering Brexit stance, finally agreed to this version of a “backstop” in order to prevent a Brexit without a deal with the EU, which at the time was slated for a departure date of October 31st, 2019.

Moving Forward

Unfortunately, the UK is still in limbo. The Prime Minister’s new backstop deal was not outright accepted in Parliament, forcing Johnson to request another Brexit extension date from the EU. After political back and forth, an extension to January 31st, 2020 was accepted by the EU nations. This extension has also forced Parliament into another election right before Christmas where Johnson and his Conservative Party will attempt to secure a majority in order to reduce their reliance on other parties, while the Labour Party, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, still struggles to develop a cohesive party view on Brexit. On the other hand, the Brexit Party, headed by Nigel Farage, is debating reducing its number of candidates to concentrate on winning seats currently held by Labour but have constituencies favoring Brexit. This could give the Conservatives a win by reducing the power of their biggest rival, but also force the Conservatives to consider an alliance with the Brexit Party, who favor a hard, no-deal Brexit.

While all of this political back and forth continues between parties and the UK and EU as a whole, the question over the Irish border remains unclear. Should the Brexit party’s mission succeed, there will be a hard border between Ireland and the UK. Should Johnson’s deal win out, Northern Ireland will remain within, in some capacity, the European Customs Union while the rest of the country leaves. If Remainers somehow took control of Parliament, chances are a new referendum on Brexit would occur. It is certainly clear, however, that the future of the Irish border will not be solved in the short run regardless of any Brexit outcome, leaving an entire region sitting and waiting for politicians and bureaucrats to decide their fate.

Photo courtesy of Eric Jones (Wikimedia Commons).

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