Britain’s long and tumultuous road to leave the European Union has reached yet another obstacle: Ireland. Under the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, remaining controls that existed following the Troubles were removed, ensuring that there was effectively no border between the Republic and the six partitioned counties of Northern Ireland. The people of North and South can travel freely. Brexit, as a consequence, makes Ireland a precarious sticking block and an issue which is taking a momentous effort to resolve (on all sides – the EU, The Irish Government and UK Government).
There are two versions of Brexit. Something which Remoaners such as Chukka Ummuna, Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas et al describe as a ‘hard’ Brexit but in reality is Brexit. This means a complete withdrawal from the single market the customs union as well as untangling ourselves from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. A ‘soft’ Brexit, however, equates to membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA), commonly referred to as the Norway model or Swiss model. Essentially, a ‘soft’ Brexit means that the UK remains a member of the European Union in all but name. EEA membership is worse than EU membership since the UK would lose the ability to influence decisions in the European Council and the European Union Parliament. Yet we would still remain a member of the single market, customs union, contribute to the EU budget and still be entangled with the ECJ. Membership of the EEA or EFTA, put simply, would reflect the UK government putting two fingers up to the vast majority of the 17.4 million who voted Brexit with the intention of using money that would be sent to the EU invested in depleted social services, as well about addressing concerns over immigration, suppression of wages in the midst of voicing a rejection of outdated, oblivious Brussels technocrats.
How is the nature of Brexit relevant to Ireland? Well, the boundary where North meets South would become the border of the EU to the UK. Under Brexit, legally, this would mean a patrolled border with customs checks – which is frankly inconceivable. The memories of the Troubles are still raw and vivid from both sides and neither side wants this. However, this is where it becomes complicated. A hard border is ruled out which should mean Northern Ireland is granted special status. This would ensure retention of the benefits that the single market and customs union brings to the North post Brexit, ensuring a smooth secession. In practice, this makes perfect sense and was accepted by all parties prior to the intervention of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The Democratic Unionists became the kingmakers following Theresa May’s humiliation of blowing the Conservative majority in an election she did not need to call. The DUP prop up the minority Conservative government in what’s described as a ‘confidence and supply’ motion. In essence, the DUP supports the Government in passing legislation and get £1bn for NI as a reward. The DUP are staunch Eurosceptics, however; prior to the emergence of UKIP, the DUP was branded the most Eurosceptic party in British politics. The DUP will die on its Eurosceptic sword and is adamant about taking the North out of the single market and customs union, despite the North voting 56:44 in favour of remaining. For Northern Ireland to be in the single market and regulatory divergence is a step too far for Arlene Foster and the people who caused Theresa May to embarrassingly retreat from what looked like a sensible deal.
Looking at the situation, the DUPs objection was based on the Union. Although Northern Ireland effectively remaining in the single market and customs union is the sensible, appropriate and logical solution, it would set a precedent. Instead of being the UK, the UK would become the D-UK: A dis-united kingdom. Northern Ireland voted Remain and their will should be respected – despite the DUP’s Euroscepticism blurring their vision. Even before Arlene Foster made her speech in Stormont, Nicola Sturgeon could not resist an opportunity to tweet that Scotland demands the same preferential treatment: Scotland’s access to the single market and customs union since they overwhelmingly voted to Remain on June 23, 2016. Currently, the UK is solely a UK in name only.
Let’s (not) all bear a thought for dear Theresa. Theresa May is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t in this situation and she is the only one to blame. Had she not lost the Tory majority, this would not be an issue. The border would be a relatively easy hurdle to overcome. The DUP are holding the Conservatives ransom – knowing agreeing to NI being in the single market and customs union in all but name would result in the withdrawal of their support in Parliament. The issue of NI being granted special status would be widely accepted, even without the DUP, but the longevity of the government becomes questionable and it is likely that sooner rather than later the shambles of the minority government will fall. Similarly, with Scotland, the Prime Minister could be the unfortunate one to preside over the break-up of a 310-year-old union since not compromising to Scottish special status could see an intensification of #indyref2 desires. Armed with that, the PM also has the impossible job of reuniting a divisive Conservative Party as well as ensuring 17.4 million people are not being sold out with some messy divorce.