Northern Ireland

Bypassing the million-to-one Irish threat to a Brexit deal

Published: 8 August 2019
Author: Richard Parry

CCC Fellow Richard Parry (University of Edinburgh) discusses the ‘turbocharging’ of preparations to avoid the ‘undemocratic backstop’

What would happen if Boris Johnson were not dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party for his Commons majority and were able to proceed on Brexit unconstrained by any need to defer to Northern Ireland unionists? Given the low salience in England and in the 2016 Brexit debate of ‘kith and kin’ and ‘our precious union’ arguments, it is likely that the modalities of Irish Sea intra-UK checks in circulation during 2017 negotiations with the EU would quickly return to the mix.  

Northern Ireland semi-detachment could become part of the post-Brexit architecture. It would be like East Germany before 1989 – de facto free trade, citizenship offered by the co-national neighbor, and automatic assimilation into the EU if reunion were secured. At times Theresa May tried to sell this privileged position and enlist Northern Ireland businesses in its promotion, but the DUP veto was decisive.  

The Irish border is also difficult for the EU. One consequence of a no-deal Brexit is that it would have to be addressed very quickly, with the onus on the EU to choose what level of land border definition on which to insist. The UK, relaxed about decades of porous movement within the Common Travel Area, would be less exposed. 

The latest Irish Government paper Preparing for the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union: Contingency Action Plan Update July 2019 is detailed on practical east-west issues but painfully brief on the hardest one of all:  

‘since earlier this year, there has been a process of engagement between Ireland and the European Commission on how to meet, in a no deal scenario, our shared twin objectives of protecting the integrity of the Single Market and Ireland’s place in it, and avoiding any physical infrastructure in the island of Ireland’ (p15). 

The Irish-focused political objective runs into the EU-focused procedural one. If the former prevails and the backstop is not cast as a mechanism for trapping the UK in a customs union against its will, or forcing the EU to let the UK stay in a customs union without membership obligations, the deal can be done.

However, nearly all room for manoeuvre on a re-presented Theresa May deal is gone. The EU27 must submit, and no pre-holiday meetings are planned.  Ireland has to be sorted after Brexit without any prior commitments now. Johnson notoriously did say (‘digital hustings’, Conservative Party Facebook page, 26 June) ‘it is absolutely vital that we prepare for a no-deal Brexit if we are going to get a deal. But I don’t think that is where we are going to end up – I think it is a million-to-one against – but it is vital that we prepare’. But he equally identified Ireland as the only remaining problem. So might his estimation of the chances have been not just a loose piece of rhetoric but an expression of his calculation? 

The issue of a potentially ‘treacherous Boris’ was raised with the DUP during the Prime Minister’s visit to Belfast on 30-31 July (especially in a fractious radio interview on RTE by Arlene Foster). After his cosy dinner with the DUP, his remarks on arriving at Stormont (his only public ones during the visit) did not mention Northern Ireland as part of the Union, referring only to the need to re-form the Executive and the UK’s impartial, facilitative role under the Good Friday Agreement. Theresa May’s susceptibility to affinity with the DUP may prove to be an unusual temporary interval in the normal UK attitude to Irish politicians – let them sort out their problems without exporting them across the water.  

A general election before or after 31 October that left the DUP no longer pivotal could be the basis for a quick fix which reinforced as necessary the Irish Sea boundary. That prospect is likely to leave the middle English Brexiteer constituency supremely indifferent. For them, the awesome qualities are confined to England.

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