November 20, 2017
Showdown over Northern Ireland
Ireland’s tougher stance on Brexit is a politically bold and risky move. The Irish want the UK to come up with a clear proposal at the December summit on how they plan to avoid a border, otherwise they risk an Irish veto on moving into the second phase of the Brexit talks.
The Irish need reassurance that there will be no regulatory divergence on either side of the border, as concluded by the task force paper that caused so much uproar when it was leaked to the newspapers. The provocative tone clearly lit a fuse in the UK. The British feel that this undermines the Brexit vote, and the Sun tabloid newspaper even suspects Sinn Fein of being behind it all, while Council officials and Brexit negotiators shake their heads at the leak. But Ireland is aware that, once they move to phase two, they no longer have leverage. And, despite London’s lukewarm promise of a "frictionless, invisible border", there is no trust that they will deliver on this once the details become clear. The UK insists that they can only meaningfully deal with the border issue in phase two when they talk about trade and customs. If the Irish - or the EU, as Dublin emphasised - were to veto the second phase of talks, expect divisions to emerge inside the EU.
Tony Connelly from RTE has an excellent recount of what led up this high noon in Brexit diplomacy. So far the British only offered some technical fixes on trade and customs to avoid a hard border in its 27 pages paper published mid August. But the Irish question is not just about economics. There is the Good Friday Agreement, too. The resulting North-South cooperation relied on a joint EU membership by Ireland and the UK, and is thus adversely affected by Brexit. Mapping the areas concerned, the Commission came up with 142! These include environment, health, agriculture, transport, education including higher education, tourism, energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, inland fisheries, justice and security, and sport. This was reflected in the task force working paper. Its conclusion according to Connelly is that:
“taken altogether, in order for the EU and UK to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and meaningful North-South Cooperation, and the all-island economy, there cannot be any "regulatory divergence" from the rules governing the single market and the customs union. Therefore, to avoid a hard border, both sides of the island would have to maintain the same rules as codified in the EU customs union, and the single market.”
Ireland has a clear interest in raising the stakes before the December summit. But there are risks not only for Ireland and the EU, but for the UK too. The Irish position is that it is possible to have a separate customs space within a state, and that all-island regulatory arrangements are possible too. These solutions are, however, rejected by the Northern Ireland unionist DUP, which supports Theresa May’s government. If May goes along the lines suggested by Ireland, the DUP may drop its support for the government, and then we are looking at new UK elections which, given the current state of the UK government after all those scandals, the Tories might well lose to Jeremy Corbyn. Would the DUP soften its stance? After all, a majority of 56% in Northern Ireland voted to remain. Unlikely. Back to square one.
The positions are now quite assertively out in the open. Theresa May has just two weeks to come up with a plan for the Irish border. Prepare for a showdown.