The Irish Border And Brexit


The convoluted topic of Britain’s exit from the European Union remains central to much of the day’s news screen. Crucial to Brexit – and the current stalling of the process – is the question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This has provided such a headache for Westminster and Brussels – not to mention Stormont and Leinster House – due to the complex history of a physical Irish border, and the future problems inimical to a new border.

As recently as March 25th, Theresa May restated her commitment to finding a deal which suits “all parts of our United Kingdom”, and that she was fully conscious “of the damage to that union leaving without a deal could do”. She also raised the possibility of some “direct application of powers” being required within Northern Ireland by the Westminster government. The EU has said that it expects the UK to “live up to its commitments to avoiding a hard border”, and that “in all scenarios, the Good Friday Agreement will continue to apply.” The Irish Government in Dublin is also keen to avoid a return to a hard border, with Garda Commissioner Drew Harris stating “zero work” has been done to implement a hard border, and that it was not on the agenda of An Garda Síochána.

Since early 2016 both Britain and the EU have agreed that they would avoid the return of a so-called “hard border” in Northern Ireland – an agreement they restated during discussions back in November 2018. In order to prevent this occurring, both sides have agreed – tentatively – to the notion of an Irish “backstop”. This is a position of last resort to maintain an open border, in the event Britain leaves the EU without a deal. Much of the division, however, has come over precisely where the backstop would be in effect. The EU wants the backstop to apply only to Northern Ireland – but this would subject goods coming from the rest of the UK to EU standards checks. Theresa May’s failed deal intended to have the backstop apply to the whole of the UK, keeping it in a customs union with the EU beyond 2020, and thus avoiding any border issues. However, the Northern Irish DUP, who are currently propping up Mrs. May’s slim majority in the House of Commons, are throwing their disproportionate weight; they want a full break with the EU, and to retain the same status as the UK – thus placing them against May’s deals. May’s most recent deals also stated that neither the UK nor the EU could leave a UK-wide backstop unilaterally – which has caused much angst amongst Brexiteer MPs, who perceive this as the EU having the power of veto consistently over the UK.

The leave-at-all-costs aim of the Brexiteer groups is the most detrimental element of the current Brexit talks. Many in Westminster seem to have forgotten the historical disaster of having a hard border in Ireland: more than 3,500 people died during “The Troubles” in Ireland, with over 50,000 combined military and civilian casualties. While a return to such violence seems highly unlikely in the modern day, the fact that such events occurred during the tenure of many currently holding seats in Westminster means they should surely not be so easily forgotten. The legacy of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement must be maintained for the future security of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the people who call the island home. Irish residents of Northern Ireland must remain free to identify as Irish, and political manoeuvring in Westminster should not place such a basic individual right in such danger.

Henry Whitelaw