Following the historic defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons two weeks ago, the U.K. government remains embroiled in legal turmoil with Brussels as it continues to search for a favourable Brexit plan. As the March 29thdeadline to exit the E.U. fast approaches, London and Brussels are still debating how to resolve the issue of the open border between the Republic of Ireland – which is a member of the E.U. – and the U.K. province of Northern Ireland. Should there be no defined plan by the deadline, the ‘Irish Border Backstop’ will then be triggered to preserve the open border and the island’s peace process. This could further strain the already tenuous relationship between London and Belfast, exacerbating the already negative social and economic impacts of Brexit on the region.
Despite growing resistance from British citizens and the near success of a vote of no confidence in Parliament, May insists that the U.K. will continue with Brexit. In a statement issued by her office, she says she fears that “a second referendum would set a difficult precedent that could have significant implications for how [they] handle referendums in [the country]” moving forward. However, she continues to assure MPs that Northern Ireland will not be adversely affected, saying she will talk to members of the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] “to consider how [they] might meet [their] obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support.” Although the DUP has expressed a desire for bilateral talks between Belfast and Dublin, European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee reaffirmed to RTÉ that Ireland will only negotiate as one of the 27 remaining members of the E.U.
The actions taken by officials in the U.K. and E.U. over the next few weeks will have the potential to shape Anglo-Irish relations for decades. Following the Good Friday Agreement to negotiate the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was established to help normalize political relations between Belfast, Dublin, and London. While the E.U. and U.K. both agree that the Good Friday Agreement must be respected and cross-border cooperation maintained, they disagree on how to accomplish this. A proposal by the E.U. initially suggested that the backstop would allow Northern Island to remain in the E.U. customs union, effectively drawing a border in the Irish Sea. However, any agreement that creates a separate deal for Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. would be seen as damaging to the union and would not be supported by the U.K. and more importantly the DUP which props up May’s minority government. Regardless, the U.K. and E.U. will be forced to make many difficult decisions about the single market in Ireland in the coming weeks.
While May insists that she will prioritize issues at the Irish border during Brexit negotiations, many are concerned that she is blind to the harm that will potentially be caused to the thousands living in Irish border communities. One possible solution to the crisis, however, is to act upon a legal precedent for Irish unification that was established during the Good Friday Agreement. Both Article 3.1 of the Irish Constitution and the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 stipulate that it is possible to peacefully reunify Ireland by a simple majority referendum vote at any time. Although many Democratic Unionists would likely vote no, the referendum would help provide a more accurate portrait of constituent desires to legislators and give the opportunity for Northern Irish citizens to choose between either the E.U. and Ireland or the U.K., while understanding the harm that choosing the latter could bring.
The outcome of negotiations in March should provide both Ireland and the E.U. with a clearer picture of the enduring social, political and economic repercussions of Brexit. Should the U.K. concede to allowing a customs border in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland could potentially become more distant and perhaps adopt a trajectory on which it could soon reunite with the rest of Ireland. Conversely, should the U.K. and E.U. fail to come to an agreement or create a harder border on the island, there could be resistance from Irish and Northern Irish citizens alike, even further straining the political situation for the ensuing decades.
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