How the Brexit battle over the Irish border throws the peace process into jeopardy

It is corroding the consensual power-sharing paradigm engendered in Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement. 

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At 8.30am on Thursday 20 September, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar led two teams of officials into a red and gold-carpeted function room in the Sheraton Grand Hotel in the centre of Salzburg. The British delegation had chosen the glitzy five-star Sheraton as their HQ for what was hoped would be a PR victory for May’s Chequers plan at the informal summit of EU leaders. Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, was in the much smaller boutique Blaue Gans hotel in the museum and art scene district. The contrast in hotel selection would no doubt have tickled the Irish delegation, reflecting as it might Varadkar’s cachet as a young, modern European leader. However, it meant that the talk with May had to take place at her hotel, as the 14th century Blaue Gans did not have a big enough function room.

Given that Ireland remains the pre-eminent Brexit deal-breaker, this was a surprisingly cordial encounter. “Some of these discussions have been a bit fraught in the past,” one delegate in the room told me, but this time both left “feeling they had had a good meeting. We all want the same outcome, even if there are difficult constraints.”

Those constraints have now been hardboiled down. The Irish backstop is a guarantee that, no matter what future trade deal the UK strikes with the EU, there will be no hard border in Ireland.

The EU insists it will only work if Northern Ireland remains in the customs union and single market. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has promised that, should it ever come to pass, goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would only be subject to the bare minimum controls. May rejects anything that suggests a customs border down the Irish Sea, and British officials have dismissed Barnier’s promise of scanners and barcodes as “window-dressing”. This irritates Ireland no end. Dublin believes that Barnier is going out of his way to make sure that whatever controls are required would not amount to a “border” on the Irish Sea.

The Sheraton meeting ended with both sides promising to intensify efforts to bridge the gap. “We had no indication that morning as to how things would unfold later,” recalls the delegate.

What unfolded later still ripples through the Brexit process. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, shot down those key parts of Chequers, on customs and single market access, that May believes are the only way she can square the circle of honouring the referendum result, providing the semblance of an independent trade policy and avoiding a border in Ireland.

Tusk’s tough talk has also reconfigured the battle lines. Dublin has become a semi-neutral bystander in a more grave struggle between London, the EU’s legal order and 26 other member states.

When May finally tables new proposals they are expected to include an absolutely-final-offer demand: if the future trade agreement, combined with technology, isn’t sufficient (or takes too long) to avoid a hard border, then the backstop must not be Northern Ireland-specific, but be UK-wide.

Ireland could live with this: it would keep the land border invisible, and would also keep €65bn in annual trade flowing between the two countries. But would the rest of the EU? What kind of customs backstop would the UK be prepared to sign up to? When the EU does other free trade deals would it be negotiating on behalf of 28 countries, or 27?

Above all there is the question of whether a UK-wide approach would pre-empt the future EU-UK trade deal. Would the UK sign up to EU goods standards as well as labour, environmental, competition and health and safety rules so as not to undercut EU member states? These questions are being asked more and more,not by the European Commission, but by member states.

Into this stand-off has lumbered the DUP, an unpredictable presence (our red line, leader Arlene Foster said, is “blood red”). Though the party is kingmaker in Westminster, it is under pressure at home as an investigation into a renewable heating scandal continues. Historically the DUP has been publicly Eurosceptic, but privately pragmatic. Euro elections were always about beating Irish nationalists, not denouncing Europe. Its 2014 manifesto described the single market as “one of the EU’s most transformative assets”. Most observers believe the party supported Brexit for visceral, not cerebral, reasons. A Remain victory was assumed, so the party expected to be noble losers.

But the Leave side won, and the DUP has since embraced Brexit. The party’s implacable opposition to anything that remotely differentiates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK can be read both ways: either it will put May in an increasingly tight spot to the point where she has to dump the DUP, or she will attempt to use its support as leverage to get a deal she can squeeze through parliament.

But all this is corroding the consensual power-sharing paradigm engendered in Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement. The academic research group BrexitLawNI has just published a report on how Brexit is affecting the peace process. It quotes an SDLP assembly member who captures the unease, especially among nationalists. “I could absolutely tolerate being in the UK and was very content to prioritise making Northern Ireland work… over any momentum towards a united Ireland. That comfort blanket has been removed, so that has made nationalism restless and it has just put identity and the constitutional question right back into politics in a way that the Good Friday Agreement had tried to minimise for decades… it has agitated it in a very serious way.”

Tony Connelly is Europe editor for RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain