As Brexit negotiations come to a head in Brussels between British and European Union negotiators, one of the largest remaining sticking points between the two sides is the matter of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
This impasse has primarily come to exist due to the presence of an open border between the United Kingdom and Ireland ever since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1999. This is important both symbolically and for economic reasons. Most concretely, Britain remains Ireland’s most important trading partner, and the same is true regarding Northern Ireland’s relationship with its neighbour to the south. Business between the two countries provides 400,000 jobs and the movement of roughly £53 million worth of assets — the hindrance of a concrete border could prove economically catastrophic.
Additionally, there are many products including Irish Bailey’s liqueur that are processed across the border and then brought back for export. And with 23,000 to 30,000 commuting across the border everyday, not to mention workers who cross back and forth for work multiple times a day, any sort of formal customs process would present a monumental headache that could force people out of their livelihoods.
These facts only hint at the harm a hard border would force upon communities on both sides. Not only do many people all along the border own land where the border would exist, there is a fear that the symbolism of a hard border could revive the old violent tendencies that made the Good Friday Agreement necessary. During the Troubles of the 20th century, border checkpoints were a symbol of the British presence in Ireland and therefore a major target of IRA bombings. Officials today are fearful that a hard border could provoke similar attacks.
With the recognition that a hard border is an unenviable outcome, comes the following issue. Although the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland can opt to forgo customs and institute an open border, European Union law requires member states to have customs checks at any border with non-member states. So assuming this requirement renders a conventionally open border impossible, both the UK and EU have proposed a ‘backstop‘, or a plan if all else fails.
The EU backstop plan states that if no resolution to the Irish border question is found by the Brexit deadline next year, they propose a new regulatory area is formed including the European Union and Northern Ireland, but not the rest of Great Britain. It’s vital to note that this plan does not call for a United Ireland, but nevertheless Theresa May’s Conservative Government quickly struck down the idea. Soon after, the UK proposed its own backstop. British negotiators did not so much change the idea of the EU’s proposal as expand it, saying that the new customs area should cover the entire UK and the Channel Islands.
Although the EU originally reacted favourably to the UK’s backstop proposal, they have since changed their tune. The EU did not like how the UK appeared to be attempting to pick and choose the European Union regulations that benefited them while escaping the costs. This has been the basic dilemma since the original vote to leave the European Union in 2016.
The Leave campaign focused on a few issues they had with the UK’s membership in the EU; for example, the allegedly unfair payments the UK was forced to make into the EU. But even they recognize the many benefits open borders in Ireland provides. The problem for UK politicians is that the EU sees this too. They know the UK needs a deal on issues like trade agreements and the Irish border, and they can use these to get a better deal for themselves. The UK, through this process, has backed itself into a corner, with any deal available to it, including the EU backstop, likely to weaken its ties to Northern Ireland and anger both English and Northern Irish Unionists.
What the Conservative Government has left to decide is if Unionist pride is worth the risks of a hard border in Ireland.