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Brexiteers Bear All the Blame for the Irish Border Impasse
The European Union and Ireland are trying to preserve Northern Ireland’s fragile stability. The British government is playing with fire.
In a recent Foreign Policy article, Oliver Wiseman suggested that the European Union and the Irish government are as much to blame for the Brexit impasse as Britain’s Conservative government and their Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) partners.
Compromise invariably requires creativity, concessions, and conciliation, and the much-discussed backstop is no different. It is a creative insurance policy to avoid a hard border with customs checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland—a provision that will only be operationalized in the event that a future U.K.-EU trade relationship cannot be agreed.
The suggestion that Ireland and the EU bear some responsibility for the Brexit backstop impasse is deeply unfair. Whereas the EU and Ireland have been firm and consistent in their support for the backstop, the British government’s escalating opposition risks destabilizing an already fragile Northern Ireland.
Wiseman’s article epitomizes the deep and fundamental misunderstandings about Northern Ireland that have been revealed since the U.K. voted to leave the EU in June 2016. His article demonstrates the widespread misunderstanding of the link between the U.K.-EU withdrawal agreement’s backstop provision and the defense of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The original version of the backstop applied to Northern Ireland only but was shelved following vehement DUP objections. The revised backstop, based on a U.K.-wide rather than a Northern Ireland-specific arrangement, was a British idea designed to appease the government’s DUP partners.
After decades of violent conflict, the Good Friday Agreement provided the basis for a new and agreed future for Northern Ireland. The institutions it created may be rusty and unreliable, as Wiseman reminds us, but they have contributed to the emergence of a significantly more peaceful and stable environment.
The great achievement of the agreement was to effectively neutralize the border issue. The agreement recognized, facilitated, and legitimized the expression of both Irish and British identity in Northern Ireland and so allowed the border to shed its politically charged subtext.
New institutional provisions and the codification of principles, including the consent principle, succeeded in taking the previously toxic border question out of Northern Ireland politics. In particular, novel cross-border bodies such as the North South Ministerial Council, which institutionalizes relations and cooperation between the Irish government and the Northern Ireland Executive, signaled a recognition of Irish nationalist identity and legitimized the expression of that identity.
In practical terms, the provisions of the agreement were supported by the EU’s open borders. Irish and U.K. membership of the EU meant that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had faded to the point of invisibility, permitting an unfettered ability to trade and travel between north and south.
Brexit threatens this open border by potentially re-erecting physical and psychological barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. This unsettles and undermines some of the fundamental features of the Northern Ireland peace settlement.
This is not a problem of Irish or EU making. A failure on the part of successive British administrations to foresee how divisive and destabilizing Brexit would be for Northern Ireland laid the early foundations for the current Brexit impasse. During the EU referendum campaign, the then-Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers insisted that the land border between north and south would remain free-flowing after a Brexit vote. Now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson similarly asserted that Brexit would leave arrangements on the Irish border “absolutely unchanged.”
But former Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to take the U.K. out of the EU customs union and the single market is not compatible with the maintenance of an open border on the island of Ireland. The remedy for ensuring and guaranteeing no hard border between north and south was a negotiated compromise: the backstop.
The backstop was not designed to offend or undermine unionists in Northern Ireland. If operationalized, it would require checks on a very limited range of goods coming into Northern Ireland from the U.K. to ensure that they comply with EU standards. Unionists interpret this arrangement as akin to a border in the Irish Sea and therefore a threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the U.K. The EU and the Irish government do not view the backstop in this way. Instead, they see it as a pragmatic response to a deeply challenging dilemma. And it is a facility that no Irish or British government will ever wish to see triggered.
But the backstop sends an important message to Northern Ireland. It recognizes the deep political, economic, and symbolic importance of an open border between north and south.
However, at every turn, leading Brexiteers, including Johnson and his DUP allies, have reignited and retoxified the border issue in Irish politics. The prime minister’s insistence on removing the backstop from the withdrawal agreement without proposing any reliable means of ensuring an open border on the island of Ireland is deeply disingenuous. It rows back on an agreement negotiated in good faith between the U.K. and the EU.
Talk of a time-limited backstop is equally duplicitous, as such a measure rids the backstop of its ability to guarantee that there will not be a hard border now or in the future. The suggestion that the British government will not erect barriers in the event of a no-deal Brexit is similarly insincere and contradicts the details contained in the government’s Operation Yellowhammer plans.
Wiseman’s proposal that the reimposition of physical border controls, camera installations, and checkpoints is a benign development completely misunderstands what such an action signifies in Northern Ireland. It reintroduces a division, barrier, and partition between north and south and that is contrary to what nationalists, in particular, were promised in the context of the Good Friday Agreement.
The British government and Brexiteers have refashioned the border problem as one of EU and Irish making. They have grossly misrepresented EU and Irish motivations by portraying insistence on the backstop as some sort of nefarious plot to keep the U.K. in the EU or to further a united Ireland agenda. They have fed a mischievous narrative suggesting that the backstop violates the Good Friday Agreement’s consent principle, when such an allegation is patently untrue and has been rejected by the U.K.’s attorney general. Northern Ireland remains a part of the U.K. until such time as a majority choose otherwise: Neither Brexit nor the backstop alter this fundamental principle.
The British government’s failure to defend and support the backstop plays into, rather than allays, unionist fears. Instead of firmly reassuring unionists, Johnson has stoked their constitutional anxieties and insecurities. He has effectively accepted that the backstop has the capacity to undermine the U.K.’s constitutional integrity.
In rejecting the compromise that is the backstop and in angling for a renegotiated withdrawal agreement that excludes it, the British government has demonstrated an incapacity or unwillingness to understand the problem that the backstop proposes to address. In so doing, Johnson and his pro-Brexit colleagues hint at their willingness to allow Brexit to reverse the gains of recent years and to risk stability in Northern Ireland.
Even more damningly, the British establishment has failed to listen to the part of the U.K. that is most deeply impacted by the Brexit impasse. The DUP represents an important constituency in Northern Ireland, but the party’s support for Brexit does not reflect majority opinion there. In Northern Ireland, 55.8 percent of the electorate voted Remain in June 2016.
Other political parties representing a majority of voters in Northern Ireland support the backstop. This includes not just nationalist political parties but also the expanding middle ground, which has recently enjoyed increased electoral success.
Civil society has also been outspoken in its support for the backstop, and according to a recent Lucidtalk Northern Ireland public opinion poll, 58.4 percent support a Northern Ireland-only backstop. The arrangement is viewed as a best of both worlds scenario giving Northern Ireland continued access to both the U.K. and the EU single market.
In defending the backstop, the Irish government and the EU are mindful of how Brexit fundamentally challenges recent political and economic progress in Northern Ireland. The backstop is simply their way of protecting that status quo.
Wiseman contends that “Brexit’s Irish question,” as he calls it, is partly due to Irish and EU intransigence. But supposed intransigence should not be confused with principled, consistent, and responsible leadership.