Time running out to secure critical deal on Irish border

Time running out to secure critical deal on Irish border

As European presidents and prime ministers prepare for Wednesday’s potentially crunch EU Council summit, there are media reports of potentially significant movement in Brexit talks. While European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Sunday that “substantially more progress” is needed for a deal, it is clear that the last big block to finalizing the EU-UK divorce terms is the Ireland border issue, meaning frantic last-minute shuttle diplomacy is underway in Brussels, London, Dublin, and Belfast.

Progress has been very slow on the future status of the border between the Republic of Ireland (which will remain in the EU) and Northern Ireland (which will leave the Brussels-based club along with the rest of the UK). The latest reports of the behind-the-scenes negotiations indicate that, to try to secure a deal, the UK might potentially accept an extension of some terms of the Brexit transition period — which could place the nation in a customs arrangement indefinitely — to try to ensure that there will not be a “hard border” (that is, any kind of physical border or visible customs checks) reintroduced between the North and the Republic. 

If true, this could be politically toxic for Brexiteers in Prime Minister Theresa May’s ruling Conservative Party and could see Cabinet resignations. Already some ministers are reportedly pressing for any such arrangements to be clearly time-limited, yet EU officials say they are reluctant to concede a firm end date. 

To be sure, all parties have repeatedly stated their desire to avoid a harder border and the preference of the UK is to keep an open border in the context of an over-arching future post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal. Yet Brussels insists such a frictionless border is incompatible with May’s promise of the UK leaving the EU Customs Union so that it can agree trade deals with key emerging markets such as China, India and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, plus key industrialized economies like Australia, the US and Canada. 

This issue is politically charged in Northern Ireland for at least two sets of reasons. Firstly, this year is the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement. While the deal has achieved significant success, it now faces a potentially major new test with Brexit, the specter of a harder border and the threat of renewed sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics. 

The DUP has threatened to withdraw its support for the prime minister if a Brexit deal is struck that it disapproves of

Andrew Hammond

Secondly, the border issue is a “blood red line” for Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs, since last June’s UK general election, are propping up May’s Conservative administration in Westminster. The DUP has threatened to withdraw its support for the prime minister if a Brexit deal is struck that it disapproves of. 

Given the difficulty of finding a breakthrough to date, the UK and EU have agreed a “backstop solution” (vehemently opposed by Foster) unless or until an alternative is agreed by all sides to ensure there is no hard border. Under this backstop, Northern Ireland would remain “in full alignment” with the EU Customs Union and Single Market. 

In the eyes of the DUP, this would mean Northern Ireland surrendering to EU economic rules and, potentially, becoming politically isolated from the British mainland. Foster is very sensitive to any such post-Brexit arrangement for Ireland that would leave the North out of sync with the rest of the UK, given its strong commitment to remaining in the union. This position is shared by most within the unionist community in Northern Ireland. 

Take the example of Lord Trimble, who was the leader of the Ulster Unionists (a more moderate party than the DUP) and first minister of Northern Ireland at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize. He has warned that any Brexit deal that leaves Northern Ireland with special status in the EU would kill a key tenet of the 1998 peace accord that there would be no constitutional change without majority consent in Northern Ireland. And Trimble warned of the possibility that loyalist paramilitary groups could once again be provoked into action if that core principle of consent was threatened. 

The position of the DUP is also supported by many, if not most, MPs in May’s own party. Part of the reason for this is that allowing Northern Ireland to be treated differently to the rest of the UK would be a political fillip to the Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh, and others in England and Wales who want to see the UK remain in the single market and customs union.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that, if Northern Ireland is allowed to operate under different rules, there is “surely no good practical reason” why other parts of the country could not do the same. This is a message echoed by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Taken overall, a deal could now be in sight if a breakthrough on Ireland is secured. Failure to move forward on this vexed issue in October, however, will not just potentially disrupt already very tight overall negotiating timelines, but also increase the prospect of talks breaking down and a potentially disorderly “no-deal” outcome coming to pass.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view