Theresa May is attempting to appease the DUP, the hard Brexiteers, and the rebel Tory Remainers. Both the DUP and the hard Brexiteers, including the European Research Group, a tight-knit group of around 60 backbench Tories, are pushing for a full exit from the single market and customs union. They favour the ‘maximum facilitation’ customs plan that has been rejected by the EU as unworkable. The rebels on the other hand claim they are simply trying to limit the economic damage that could be caused by leaving the SM and CU.
Both sides have been threatening May with a leadership challenge for the best part of a year every time a major Brexit issue threatens to cross one of their red lines. Yet despite having the numbers to force a leadership election, they haven’t — most likely because that would derail their chance of a hard Brexit and could even trigger a general election.
The DUP line is the most difficult for Theresa May to continue to uphold. It is much easier to appease her own party if Northern Ireland was to be given some form of special status — whether this be permanently in place, or simply as a backstop or transitionary measure. If Northern Ireland were allowed to remain in the CU and/or the SM then she could focus on sorting out the exact nature of the trading relationship.
However, whilst the DUP may be pushing this line in order to retain the integrity of the United Kingdom, it could end up adding fuel to the united Ireland fire.
As I am writing, there is no agreement in place over the Irish border, nor is one expected in the coming weeks. Thus we are staring down the possibility that there could be some form of border arrangement in Ireland.
Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU Referendum by a majority of 56 per cent to 44 per cent, yet a study released at the end of May 2018 by the UK in a Changing Europe group, found that more than two-thirds (69 per cent) would favour Remain if there was another vote.
Border communities would be devastated by the newly imposed border, and Northern Ireland could be thrown into turmoil by the economic consequences and the potentially violent political fallout. It is impossible to predict accurately how dissidents on both sides of the sectarian divide would react to a new border — but given the significance of the fragile peace that has grown out of the Good Friday Agreement (and subsequently the Saint Andrews Agreement), Northern Irish dwelling folks are more than aware of the potential for Brexit to derail that peace. Especially at a time when the constitutional question of a United Ireland is at the forefront of many minds, and the tension between the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties is so highly strung that they have been unable to agree terms on which to form a government.
These fears are not unfounded. Research by Professor John Garry and Professor Brendan O’Leary has given a glimpse at what may lie beyond the decision to implement any sort of border in Ireland. They found that one in five Catholics would find camera-based technology at the border ‘almost impossible to accept’. Over half of Catholics, and 70 per cent of Catholics who support Sinn Féin would find customs checks ‘almost impossible to accept’, and if customs agents were protected by British soldiers almost three-quarters of Catholics, and 82 per cent of Catholics who support Sinn Féin, would find the arrangement almost impossible to accept.
More than a quarter (28 per cent) of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland if the UK remained in the EU, while 53 per cent would back a united Ireland if there was a hard exit in which the UK left the customs union and single market. The research also found that there were strong expectations that protests against checks at the Irish border or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would quickly become violent.
Even when the possibility of a second vote is taken off the table, 61 per cent of the population still favour the UK as a whole remaining in the customs union and single market — a position being pushed by both Sinn Féin and Alliance. They want Northern Ireland to remain a stepping stone to Europe with regulatory alignment with the Republic of Ireland, facilitated by remaining in both the customs union and the single market.
This option has been approved by Europe and the Irish Government, and is backed by the majority of people within Northern Ireland as an acceptable channel through which to secure a hard Brexit for the rest of the UK without irrevocably damaging the fragile Northern Irish peace or its economy.
Any form of border is likely to cause uproar and it will be accompanied by strong calls for a border poll, where the arguments are more than simply the shared heritage of the Island. Because of this, the DUP’s commitment to ensuring both a hard Brexit and maintaining the Union could quite possibly lead to a United Ireland.
By Josh Hamilton
Editor at www.thejist.co.uk