For much of the EU referendum, Theresa May shrewdly adopted the low profile of a “reluctant Remainer”. One of her few memorable interventions was over Northern Ireland. During a visit to the province (which voted Remain by 56-44), the then home secretary said that it was “inconceivable” that new border controls would not be imposed in the event of Brexit. “If we were out of the European Union with tariffs on exporting goods into the EU, there’d have to be something to recognise that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” May warned. “And if you pulled out of the EU and came out of free movement, then how could you have a situation where there was an open border with a country that was in the EU and had access to free movement?”
Yet as prime minister, May has visited Northern Ireland today with a diametrically opposed message. She will support the Irish government’s stance that there should be no “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that passport-free travel should continue.
There is an awareness among the EU of the disruptive effect that new controls would have on the peace process. “It’s a special situation and it has to be found a special place in the negotiations,” François Hollande said during a recent meeting with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. But how special, like so much else, depends on the deal the UK strikes with the rest of the EU. If Britain imposes limited controls on free movement (such as an “emergency brake”) and, at the very least, maintains visa-free travel, it will easier to maintain present arrangements with Northern Ireland. But should May bow to pressure from Conservative MPs and others to fully end free movement, it will be harder to justify an open Irish border.
As in the case of Scotland, the imperative of preserving the UK collides with the imperative of unifying the Tories. “Brexit means Brexit,” May has repeatedly stated. But beyond leaving the EU, there is no agreement on what this means. For both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the best Brexit would be a “soft” version that preserves as much of the status quo as possible (through Single Market membership). But Tory MPs and many Leave supporters voted for a harder variety. Reconciling these poles will be the defining task of May’s premiership.