Conservative leadership contenders face Irish border impasse over Brexit

CCC Fellow Dr Mary Murphy (University College Cork) on how the contenders for the Tory leadership are effectively offering one of three choices in how they confront the current Brexit impasse, and how each choice has specific consequences for the island of Ireland. 
Prime Minister Theresa May’s premiership was dominated by Brexit, and ultimately her inability to steer the UK out of the EU proved to be her downfall. In supporting the backstop as a means to address the ‘Irish question’, she alienated not just her DUP Confidence and Supply partners, but also many MPs within her own party and across the house. Her position was guided by her desire to avoid the re-imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland. As the Tory leadership contest intensifies, that perspective does not appear to be one shared by all those seeking election and it is a situation which threatens future economic and political stability on the island of Ireland. 
The Tory leadership contenders are currently setting out their Brexit stalls. Some have been vocal on the Irish dimension; others have been quiet; and a few have attempted to minimise (even dismiss) the extent to which Brexit poses difficulties for Ireland, north and south.   
Those contesting the leadership race are effectively offering one of three choices in how they confront the current Brexit impasse, and each choice has specific consequences for the island of Ireland. 
Firstly, a small band of Tory leadership hopefuls, including Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey, appear content to allow the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal on 31 October 2019. There is a widespread consensus that a No Deal Brexit would entail serious economic hardship for the UK, possibly accompanied by political instability and civil unrest. 
For Northern Ireland, the consequences of a No Deal are even more profound and risky. Severe economic challenges, serious political instability, a push for constitutional change in the form of a united Ireland, and a possible deterioration in community relations cannot be ruled out. The legacy of the conflict has not yet been quieted in Northern Ireland, and a harsh Brexit has the potential to re-awaken old tensions. For a future UK Prime Minister to risk destabilising a hard won peace in this way smacks of blatant irresponsibility.  
Secondly, some of the leadership contenders intend to secure a revised Brexit deal before the 31 October deadline. Precise details vary, but have included suggestions in relation to a ‘time-limited backstop’ (Matt Hancock), a ‘digitised border’ (Sajid Javid) and ‘alternative arrangements’ (Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab). 
The proposals appear to ignore the European Commission’s strident refusal to re-open negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. But more worryingly, the ideas being mooted reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the Irish dimension to the Brexit story. The contenders’ proposals to break the Brexit deadlock beg questions about the extent to which senior Tory party members really understand the complexities and nuances of what Brexit means for Northern Ireland (and Ireland). 
Concerns about Brexit in Northern Ireland go beyond raw economic calculations. The more fundamental problem is how Brexit disrupts Northern Ireland’s delicate post-conflict journey by re-opening discussions about the border. After the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the contentiousness of the border question was largely overcome. Brexit has re-politicised this most sensitive aspect of the relationship between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, and this has involved revisiting difficult identity-based quarrels which had largely gone into abeyance. 
By advocating for (impossible and unacceptable) changes to the Withdrawal Agreement which continue to focus on managing a new type of border rather than maintaining the status quo, this group of leadership contenders demonstrate little more than poor faith in their approach to Brexit’s Irish dimension.  
Thirdly, a small minority of contenders support signing up to the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands. Rory Stewart falls into this category, believing that there is no feasible alternative to what’s currently on the table. Stewart’s preference dovetails with that of the Irish government, the Remain parties in Northern Ireland, key Northern Ireland interest groups and a majority of public opinion there.  
Within the confined parameters she set herself (for the UK to leave the customs union and single market), Theresa May arguably produced the only possible means of ensuring an open border on the island of Ireland. Admittedly, it may not be the best option for all concerned, but it is probably the least worst option. None of the Tory leadership contenders have offered any detailed or viable alternatives to what was negotiated by the Prime Minister, and few have been honest enough to acknowledge or admit it. 
The qualities which define the best kind of leadership include not just honesty, but also integrity, accountability, creativity and bravery. As another Brexit deadline looms, the UK needs this kind of leadership, and Northern Ireland needs it in spades. Those electing the UK’s future Conservative Party leader should think long and hard about how their choices have the potential to either secure or sour a delicate equilibrium in Northern Ireland. 

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to

Mary C. Murphy's picture
post by Mary C. Murphy
University College Cork
10th June 2019

Latest blogs

Read More Posts