Almost twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the Troubles, the future of Northern Ireland is once again in the international headlines. This time, the crisis is being refracted through the lens of European, rather than regional, politics. The issue has taken some of the shine off the immediate positive impact of the Brexit referendum result, and the problems raised by the crisis seem insurmountable: How can the United Kingdom leave the European Union while avoiding the imposition of the “hard border” that its government does not want and that the Irish economy might not survive?
The crisis abounds in ironies. One side in the debate is astonished that the centenary of the struggle for Irish independence is being marked by the Republic’s government frustrating its closest neighbour’s pursuit of its own ideal of national sovereignty. Another side in the debate cannot understand why unionists across Ulster campaigned to leave, knowing that the success of that vote would encourage nationalist and separatist movements across the UK. Discussions of the “will of the people of Northern Ireland” too often forget that constituencies in the province returned some of the highest tallies for both the leave and remain campaigns: Brexit has become another indicator of the polarization of the electorate under political formulas that were negotiated by the centrist unionist and nationalist parties that have been pushed to the side-lines by the relentless rise of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). And, of course, these ironies reach into Westminster, where the political ascendancy of the DUP has highlighted the on-going vilification of unionism within British media culture, and where the negotiations for Brexit are being led by a Prime Minister who campaigned against it and criticized by a leader of the opposition who, like many on the far left, has a long history of Euroskepticism and is thought to have privately supported the campaign to leave.
The debate about the future of the Northern Ireland border, with its apparently unsolvable mathematics, has precipitated a crisis of almost existential proportions in London, Dublin, and Brussels. While refusing to get involved in the violence and political irregularity of the Catalonian crisis, which they regard as an internal matter for the Spanish government, European leaders have proposed solutions for Brexit that threaten to undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom: Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, has called for Northern Ireland to remain within the customs union and to have its own Brexit deal, effectively pushing EU borders into the Irish Sea. While this may represent a negotiating position in a complex discussion designed to achieve a more conciliatory conclusion, the suggestion has provoked the fury of unionists across Ulster, who recoil from any move that further distinguishes Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, such as those that British negotiators apparently tabled today.
But while Northern Ireland politics resurface at the center of an international debate, there is no forum for their discussion at home. The devolved assembly at Stormont has been out of operation since January, when Sinn Fein walked out of the power-sharing administration, apparently in protest about a badly mismanaged renewable heat incentivizing scheme, and the protracted negotiations that followed, which were aimed at the formation of a new power-sharing administration, have been frustrated by disagreement about a controversial rights agenda. Discussions have stalled over an Irish language act, but the disagreement may be interpreted by those outside the secret negotiations to represent the reluctance of the DUP to govern through the imposition upon the province of same-sex marriage and the reluctance of Sinn Fein to govern through the implementation of Brexit. This week the total failure of these negotiations became apparent, with Sinn Fein indicating that there is no basis for the continuation of these talks, even as its politicians object to the possibility of direct rule from Westminster. If this interpretation stands, the province’s politics are caught in a vicious circle: Local politicians need to meet to consider the implications of Brexit, but will only reconstitute the devolved assembly once the crisis has passed.
If they have no forum for debate in Belfast, the views of Northern Ireland politicians are certainly being heard in Westminster. The DUP, the province’s largest unionist party, effectively holds the balance of power in the House of Commons, where, after her failed gamble of a general election, Theresa May’s government hangs by a thread and only with the support of ten Northern Ireland MPs. Playing on this advantage, the DUP negotiated £1 billion of additional public funding for Northern Ireland, in return for agreeing to support the Conservatives in a “confidence and supply” arrangement. Conservative dependence upon the DUP seriously weakens the government’s hand in the Brexit negotiations. Northern Ireland unionists have long been wary of their English counterparts, and can point to a long history of betrayal by Westminster administrations upon which they have relied: Even as stalwart a British hero as Winston Churchill, for example, repeatedly offered Northern Ireland to the southern state in return for its entering the Second World War on the side of the Allies. Unionists are again worrying about whom to trust. With her small majority depending upon unionist MPs, Theresa May cannot make any gesture towards rearranging the UK-EU border without seriously, and perhaps fatally, destabilising her own Conservative government. UK negotiators have very little flexibility in these discussions, simply because they cannot over-ride the wishes of the DUP. But Northern Ireland unionists fear that their principles will be sacrificed on the altar of British expediency—a plausible fear, as today’s headlines suggest.
The Republic’s sometimes unstable coalition government also seems to have a narrowing range of options. Ireland is the EU member state most at risk from a badly negotiated Brexit. Economically, it must protect open access to the UK market, which consumes 44 percent of exports from Irish firms, including 90 percent of Irish exports of cereals, fruit and vegetables. But, on the other hand, Ireland’s coalition partners must also respond to the recent electoral successes of Sinn Fein by moving closer to older nationalist ideals—a move that seems especially critical in light of an expected general election, an early poll for which has been made more likely by a scandal relating to a political cover-up and a smear campaign directed against a whistle-blower in the Irish police. A hard border would re-inscribe the north-south jurisdictional differences that were softened by the administrative ambiguities of the Good Friday Agreement. In the referendum that supported the Agreement, the Republic dropped its constitutional claim to the northern counties. But Barnier’s negotiations for Brexit may be re-opening that question.
The solution to the Irish border problem seems imponderable, but it may be that the difficulty is not caused by the competing national interests of either of the governments most immediately affected by the negotiations. Ireland and the United Kingdom have a great deal more in common than the billions of euros of shared trade that is now at risk by the imposition of customs barriers on a hard border. The common travel area, established in 1923, allowed for free movement between the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State, and enacted what was virtually a common immigration zone. The two countries joined the European Community on the same day in 1973, recognising their mutual political and economic interest—a striking acknowledgement, given that the northern troubles were then at their height. During the economic crisis of 2007–09, the British government contributed around £20 billion to the Irish economy in a kinder bail-out than the €85 billion deal organised by the troika, the European organizations and International Monetary Fund, for which, as a national newspaper recently put it, “Ireland gave up its sovereignty.” While real differences exist, and in some areas becoming increasingly pronounced, in terms of culture, media, law, education, and in strong tourism sectors, the two countries have a very great deal in common.
It’s worth remembering that Ireland and the United Kingdom also share a tradition of Euroskepticism. The British example is better known, but successive Irish governments’ enthusiasm for European integration must be balanced against Irish voters’ rejection in referenda of the treaties of Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008), both of which referenda had to be re-run for these treaties to be ratified. The confidence of some senior administrators in the goodwill of EU institutions was dented by the media manipulation that pushed the Irish government into accepting the bailout. Sinn Fein’s move to promote the values of EU integration is reasonably recent. And arguments about the real value of membership may be less persuasive as the Republic becomes a net contributor to EU beneficiaries elsewhere.
Perhaps the two governments can build with imagination on this shared history. They may get little help from Northern Irish politicians, who, with a long history of underachievement, are not noted for imagining creative solutions. But perhaps the debate can be re-framed. One solution might be to consider whether Ireland should pursue its own exit from the European Union—a proposal that has gained small traction in Irish media. A more realistic suggestion might be to consider whether Ireland should pursue special status within the European Union, combining its access to the European common market with access to that of the United Kingdom, thus satisfying many of the demands of the Irish government and its European minders. But there are problems with each of these solutions—and with many others besides.
Brexit may present intractable problems for the Irish border—but failure to resolve these problems is not an option. After all, if the border issue cannot be solved, and the UK government agrees to trade on the basis of WTO rules, it could become the responsibility of the Irish government to create the hard border that neither country wants, and to control the 44 percent of exports from Irish firms that currently arrive in the United Kingdom. Not for the first time, an Irish political crisis calls for creative imagination. Meanwhile, EU leaders continue their power-play. Ireland has fulfilled its role as “model prisoner” of an unwanted program of austerity that was designed principally for the benefit of French and German banks, as Yanis Varoufakis has argued. And Ireland’s transformation is complete: Last Friday, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, emerged from a meeting with Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, to confirm Ireland’s new status as the end of EU diplomacy: “Let me say very clearly. If the UK offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU.” But as Ireland becomes the end of EU diplomacy, so it risks becoming its means. Not for the first time, to protect its own interests, the European Union may be gambling with Ireland’s future to make its own kind of point.
Meanwhile, as today’s headlines suggest, the UK government can contemplate the possibility of an exit deal requiring Northern Ireland to stay within while Britain leaves the single market and customs union—a suggestion abominated by the ten DUP MPs upon whom Theresa May’s Parliamentary majority depends.
Brexit abounds in ironies. Ireland may stay within the European Union at the cost of its own sovereignty, as the Irish Independent suggested—but, as today’s headlines suggest, the United Kingdom may be prepared to leave the European Union at the cost of its own territorial and legal integrity.