Ireland has taken centre stage as we approach a crucial signpost in Brexit talks. While an official statement on the Irish border is yet to come, on Monday morning multiple news sources reported that the UK government had agreed that Northern Ireland would remain aligned in terms of regulations with the Republic of Ireland. This implies that Northern Ireland will remain in the single market and customs union.
The negotiations regarding the island of Ireland are complex, and there is still much to discuss – including where a hard border might fall if not on the island, and whether the staunchly unionist Democratic Unionist Party could still sabotage the UK government. Here’s what you need to know:
So, what’s the background?
The UK’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016 means departure from the single market and, it appears, the customs union. This wasn’t on the referendum ballot paper, but Labour voted with the Conservatives in favour of leaving the single market, though many Europhile backbenchers defied the whip. But while the position of Britain’s mainstream political parties may go down well with their supporters, it doesn’t solve the practical question of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic.
What are the single market and customs union, and why do they matter?
The single market allows the free movement of goods, services, capital and people across EU member states. In other words, a farmer in the Republic of Ireland should be able to sell butter as easily to a supermarket in Paris as to one in London.
The customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. Some opponents of hard Brexit, particularly in the Labour Party, believe a deal that allows the UK to remain in the customs union – while leaving the single market – could help protect the economy, as the UK can retain access to deals between the EU and other trading nations.
Advocates of staying in the customs union also argued that it was the only way to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
What has happened today?
According to Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE, the UK is poised to accept no regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In simple terms, this means that a hard border could potentially be avoided.
What does this mean for Brexit?
If Northern Ireland remains in both the customs union and single market, it would be a monumental climbdown from the UK government. And it would effectively mean Brexit as we know it doesn’t happen in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile in the mainland UK there is the possibility of a hard border with the entire island of Ireland. Essentially, instead of the entire UK diverging from the Republic of Ireland, it looks as though Northern Ireland will maintain ties while the rest of the UK carries on down the hard Brexit path.
What does this mean for Northern Ireland?
The majority of Northern Irish voters wanted to remain in the EU, and many had worried since the vote that the Good Friday Agreement, created under the auspices of the EU, was in danger of collapse. A frictionless border has been the embodiment of peaceful relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
As for those who are unhappy, they may be the minority – but since they are represented by the party currently holding the balance of power in parliament – the DUP – their response will have a significant effect.
How will this go down in Scotland?
Not well. Like Northern Ireland, Scots voted in favour of Remain, and by a bigger margin (62 per cent). If Northern Ireland can get a special deal, why can’t Scotland? The independence question, which seemed all but dropped after the Scottish National Party lost a third of its seats at Westminster in the 2017 snap election, may come back into vogue again.
Is this another U-turn from the government?
Brexiteers will see it this way. We were told that the UK was leaving the EU, but now one quarter of it appears to be staying inside the EU institutions. This doesn’t appear to look good for beleagured Prime Minister Theresa May, at least as far as her clout within the Conservative Party is concerned.
Will Brexit talks progress now?
If this agreement has been reached, as it appears to have been, then talks look likely to move onto the next stage. An arduous few months of haggling and debating with Brussels seems to have led to a breakthrough at last. Ireland in particular has been keen to get the border issue sorted, but also to move on and start talking trade.