Irish border is the Achilles heel of Brexit

by Quentin Peel | 25.05.2018

A terrible truth is finally starting to dawn on the British political establishment, and even the most blinkered of Brexiters. There is no way of combining an open and invisible Irish land border – to which London, Dublin and the EU have committed themselves – with Brexit. No solution on offer is both politically acceptable and practically workable.

For a start, both proposals floated by the UK government for a non-border regime – for a “highly streamlined” border crossing, or a fantastically complicated “new customs partnership”, under which the UK will collect EU tariffs – look utterly impractical.

As for proposed “backstop” solutions, they are all politically unacceptable to someone: keeping Northern Ireland in the EU customs union and single market for all cross-border traffic is anathema to the Democratic Unionists (DUP) whose votes keep Theresa May in power, because it would require a border between the province and Britain. As for May’s own suggestion of keeping the whole UK in a customs union and large parts of the single market, that looks unacceptable both to Brussels and the Brexiters on her back benches.

No wonder the opinion poll done for the UK in a Changing Europe this week showed a sharp increase in the percentage of the Northern Irish population who would vote to stay in the EU in another referendum: up from 56% in 2016 to 69% now. Those who would vote for Brexit again are down from 44% to 31%.

The same poll shows strong opposition in both unionist and nationalist communities to reintroduction of border controls, and overwhelming support for any solution that would ensure that there would continue to be no physical border, either north-south or east-west. 61% of Catholics and 62% of Protestants want the whole UK to remain in both the customs union and the single market.

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Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, says she doesn’t want a “hard border”, either. But she also insists that “the only people stirring up myths of border checkpoints are those committed to unpicking the Union.” She accuses Dublin of using Brexit to “promote a united Ireland”.

There is no overall majority in the North in favour of a united Ireland. But what the poll suggests is that the Brexit process, not the Irish government, has boosted support for unification. Only 28% of Catholics say they would vote for a united Ireland if the UK stayed in the EU, but 53% would support the idea if the UK leaves with a hard Brexit. 68% of Catholics want a referendum on the issue, but only 29% of Protestants.

Seasoned observers blame the Brexit debate for rekindling divisions between the two communities, and indirectly for causing the collapse of the power-sharing executive created by the Good Friday Agreement. The existence of the EU – with the UK and Ireland both members – was an essential precondition for the peace deal, making the border invisible and persuading the IRA to lay down their arms. DUP support for Brexit is seen by Catholics as deeply provocative.

The DUP holds Theresa May politically hostage, because she needs their votes at Westminster to have any majority. But no one represents the nationalist community in London, because Sinn Fein refuses to take its seats. And with no power-sharing executive, there is no elected Northern Irish government to put its point of view in the Brexit negotiations. No wonder both Catholics and Protestants in the province feel unloved and unrepresented.

May has to produce a detailed backstop proposal in the next fortnight, to have any hope of agreement when June’s European summit attempts to reach an Irish border deal. That is looking ever less likely. The reality is that the Northern Irish question could be the Achilles’ heel that undermines the entire Brexit project.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe