The resolution of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement is currently stuck on the key outstanding issue of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland or Ireland, or, to put it another way, between the UK and the European Union.
Essentially, the UK government has forced itself into a trilemma in which it has adopted three positions, only two of which can be achieved at any one time: to avoid a hard border within the island of Ireland; for the UK as whole to leave both the customs union and the single market; and to rule out any special arrangements for Northern Ireland in relation to a customs union and single market.
Any free trade agreement doesn’t avoid a hard border as it falls short of a customs union, and mooted technological solutions are at best some way off into the future. This forces the UK to either accept the EU’s legal formulation of the backstop insurance approach around ongoing regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland as necessary or to come up with plausible alternative proposals.
Frustrations are clearly building up among some Brexiteers, who are saying that the Good Friday Agreement is irrelevant to the EU and therefore Brexit, or that the border issue us being exaggerated or hyped up, or that this is a manufactured crisis with an aggressive the Irish Government either seeking to exploit the situation or having its strings pulled by Sinn Féin.
Brexit is a very real problem, and this is understood across a broad cross-section of opinion within Northern Ireland, and among its many friends – especially those who have had a particular role in the peace process.
Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society and a contested space with different sections of the community having different constitutional aspirations. Notwithstanding all of the progress in the peace process, the region continues to have a major fault line.
The Agreement provided a framework to manage these divisions and associated tensions, and, although it is not yet fully realised, the opportunity to transform the nature of society.
It provided a balanced settlement, with full recognition of the Principle of Consent for terming Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, alongside partnership government and a complex set of interlocking relationships across the different islands.
This provided the ability of people to lead their lives and to do business as they chose on a north-south and/or east-west basis. Combined with a commitment to human rights and equality alongside power-sharing, this balance of relationships essentially took the heat of the constitutional clash.
While in a strict textual sense the Good Friday Agreement was not predicated on the EU, it was the joint UK and Irish membership of the EU, and in particular the outworking of the customs union and single market, that facilitated the freedoms across the islands that people quickly took for granted.
Hitherto, the UK and Ireland has also had the same relationship to the EU, both out and then in at the same times.
Northern Ireland only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. Yet Brexit, in particular a hard Brexit, entails new division, barriers and friction.
Brexit has placed the constitutional question back on the table in contrast to a situation in which it had largely been parked between 1998 and 2016. While the different national aspirations were in the background, there were still cultural and other issues on which the parties could clash and engage in rolling crises and crisis management.
The current political impasse in which Northern Ireland has now had no functioning government for well over a year (ironically at a time when a coherent devolved governmental voice was more crucial than ever) is qualitatively different in its nature and severity.
Brexit itself, and any potential mitigation thereof for Northern Ireland, has become largely polarised along identity lines, and there is little space for pragmatic consensual solutions to emerge. Similarly, there are different degrees of fears around the emergence of either a hard border across the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea.
The emergence of new border arrangements needs to be understood in more than just economic terms, and accordingly any solutions need to be framed more widely than simply a practical attempt to keep levels of new friction to a bare minimum.
Borders are emotional and psychological. Any border down the Irish Sea would be seen by many as a fragmentation of the UK, even though there is already some degree of economic friction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In turn, any new border across the island would be seen as a reversal of the gains of peace under the Good Friday Agreement. This point is broader than the enhanced security risk posed by a physical border as articulated by the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, amongst others.
Rather it is a recognition that the implementation of the Agreement has seen a demilitarisation of the border, and many people would see any checks even if efficient and unobtrusive as a step backwards. It is the principle and symbolism of the checks themselves that is the issue.
Therefore, Brexit must be seen as an existential threat to the entire concept of a shared Northern Ireland. If a consensual approach cannot be found this leads to a zero-sum approach that sees Northern Ireland shackled to the rest of the UK in a hard Brexit with unionists engaged in siege-mentality politics and an increasingly frustrated and alienated nationalist population and indeed many others, or alternatively, or a united Ireland emerging on the basis of a majoritarian outcome within a border poll.
Any new borders within these islands are going to be hugely problematic. The insurance backstop from the EU is useful but doesn’t address the challenge. The least worst configuration is for the UK as a whole to opt to stay within a customs union with the EU and if not the entire UK, then Northern Ireland as a region, remaining in the single market. This approach would be consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, including the Principle of Consent, and would be delivered through the devolved structures.
Northern Ireland already has differences in policy and practice arising through devolution, and notably already has some agricultural checks with Great Britain, and aspects of the economy organised on an island basis including energy.
Furthermore, all of the main five parties support the region having the power to vary corporation tax and to in effect have a similar approach adopted to the counterpart on the island through mirroring a key aspect of the Irish Government’s economic model.
Northern Ireland is profoundly in need of a shared approach to Brexit. This is broader than an economic consideration. It is about the future cohesion of society. There is no escaping that Brexit has major implications of the Good Friday Agreement.
For more analysis on Northern Ireland, try Professor Lee McGowan’s Starting gun to a referendum or a ticking time bomb?