The Brexit Proposals: A Complex, Convoluted and Contested ‘Compromise’ for Northern Ireland

Published: 4 October 2019

Mary C. Murphy  of University College Cork discusses the Prime Minister’s ‘compromise’ for Northern Ireland.

The initial response to Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexit proposals suggest that he has not done enough to satisfactorily address the backstop conundrum. Instead, the proposals add an additional layer of cost, complexity, convolution and contestation to an already challenging Brexit landscape. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s ‘technical fix’ is devoid of any sensitivity to Northern Ireland’s unique post-conflict circumstances because it approaches the Brexit challenge as a technical and economic dilemma, and so fails to engage meaningfully with the arguably more important political dimension of the problem.

The EU and the Irish government have been cautious and guarded in their response to the proposals, but it is clear that both see considerable negotiating hurdles ahead.

Reactions in Northern Ireland have been less restrained. A convoluted ‘two border four year’ formula makes for a complex and possibly changeable set of trade relationships on the island of Ireland.

The DUP is the only party to welcome the proposals. Other political parties, drawn from across the political divide, have voiced marked objections to the plans (although for different reasons).

Representatives of business and industry have criticised the latest proposals with one business leader suggesting that they are worse than a No Deal. The Prime Minister’s proposals are contrary to key priorities voiced by industry, business and farmers in Northern Ireland, and have been greeted with some dismay by those who will effectively be at the frontline in terms of operationalising any new arrangements.

The groundswell of opposition has a strong economic hue, but it is also based on a deep awareness of the political significance of the/a border/s in Northern Ireland for peace, stability and reconciliation. A similar level of sentience is absent in the Prime Minister’s vision for and approach to post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.  

Managing a Divided Society

The process of recovery and reconciliation after a long period of conflict is invariably slow and challenging. Long after the violence has dissipated, divided societies – such as Northern Ireland is – require political support, sensitivity and impartiality.

Brexit presented an unwelcome interruption for the process of post-conflict adjustment in Northern Ireland, but the fallout from the tortuous UK-EU negotiations never needed to be as frenetic and fraught as it currently is.

Efforts to understand and accommodate the specific and unique needs of Northern Ireland during the Brexit debacle have not been sufficiently understood by the British establishment. Where former Prime Minister Theresa May belatedly showed some limited understanding of Northern Ireland, her successor demonstrates no such insights.

Instead Prime Minister Johnson’s approach to addressing Northern Ireland’s unique Brexit needs has relied on ambiguous posturing, divisive language, and blatant partisanship. There has been no serious attempt to craft a compromise position which might enjoy more widespread and consensual support in Northern Ireland.

In effect, Prime Minister Johnson has cemented and intensified the pro versus anti-Brexit divide in Northern Ireland. That rift has a raw political edge pitting the DUP against all others. The Prime Minister has also met with key economic interests in Northern Ireland but chosen not to heed their advice and warnings. He has largely ignored the majority preference of those in Northern Ireland who voted against Brexit, and in various opinion polls since, have repeatedly demonstrated their support for the backstop.

Of course, Prime Minister Johnson’s proposals may come to nothing if they prove to be unacceptable to the EU, and perhaps that’s the Prime Minister’s ultimate plan. However, on the journey to whatever the final outcome might be, his approach to Northern Ireland has stoked genuine fear and foreboding among ordinary people. Their ability to trust the British government to listen and to hear their deepfelt concerns has been roundly challenged.

That is significant because if the British government, as a key sponsor of Northern Ireland’s peace and stability, cannot be confidently relied upon to be sensitive to both communities and to all interests in Northern Ireland, its impartiality and legitimacy is undermined. This means that one of the central pillars sustaining Northern Ireland’s fragile stability is seriously damaged and dented.

The political, electoral and constitutional consequences of this skewed environment may yet haunt Prime Minister Johnson and his stated (although dubious) commitment to a negotiated Brexit and a ‘one nation [British] project’. A potential myriad of unknown risks and hazards lie ahead, but one thing is clear: if ever there was a lesson in how not to manage a fragile post-conflict political equilibrium, Prime Minister Johnson may well provide the standard.

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