Brexit: The Mess That Could Set Back Years of UK-Ireland Progress
All of us are getting news notifications on our phones and computers, almost on a daily basis, on Brexit and the issues surrounding the exit deal. But what actually is Brexit and why does it really matter?
In a June 2016 referendum, voters in Britain, Wales, Scotland, and most parts of Northern Ireland chose to leave the European Union in a close vote of 51.9 to 48.1 percent. The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of 28 member states located primarily in Europe that works to promote stability and economic cooperation between its member states. Since March 2017, the United Kingdom and European Union have been engaged in negotiations on the terms of the UK’s exit and the future of their relationship. One of the main challenges to finding an agreement on a final deal has been meeting the requirements of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.
The UK is currently part of the EU’s customs union and single market. The customs union is a principal component of the EU. There are no tariffs or non-tariff barriers to trade between members of the customs union, and members states impose a common external tariff on all goods entering the union.The single market is made of the 28 EU member states and seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. After Brexit, the UK will leave both the customs union and single market.
This will raise questions about the status of the Irish border, particularly whether or not the border will become a customs border with all the associated checks and controls that come with that title. A customs border is a border control that checks any items and goods crossing the border, where taxes or tariffs could be imposed.This will most likely create practical and economic challenges and could reverse relations between the US and Ireland and all the progress that has been made in recent years.
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a source of major conflict and violence between the two countries. When the Republic first split from the UK and Northern Ireland, the border line was insignificant. However, after some time passed, hostility between the UK and Ireland resumed. As a result, the UK established customs checks at the border. The two countries eventually entered into a trade war and tariffs were placed on agricultural produce, steel, coal, and other things. By the late 1960s, this trade war turned violent. Conflict broke out in Northern Ireland between nationalist militaries (like the Irish Republican Army) who believed that Northern Ireland was rightfully part of Ireland and the British were oppressors; and as such, there should be no restrictive border between the two states. Ireland's Nationals population unionist militaries fought back to defend their place in the UK. Both groups brought violence to the streets by blowing up buildings and setting off car bombs, among other things.
The UK deployed thousands of troops to Northern Ireland during his time, who became a common target of nationalist attacks. A lot of these attacks occurred at the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which for nationalists was the ultimate symbol of British occupation. The UK military secured the borderline with walls, towers, guns, and patrols. They controlled the 20 official border crossings with an iron grip and screened all people and vehicles crossing the partition. The conflict in Northern Ireland turned this into a hard border. The violence lasted for more than 30 years and killed over 3,600 people. This period of time is most commonly known as the “Troubles”.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, brought an end to the conflict and established power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The agreement gives EU membership to the UK and Ireland, while also creating an understanding for the UK and Irish governments to cooperate on EU matters. The Good Friday Agreement also allows people born in Northern Ireland to choose either Irish citizenship, British citizenship, or both. The UK has stated that it wants this option to continue after Brexit. The agreement also established special EU funding programmes, known as PEACE, to reinforce the peace process and support cross-community projects. It also created the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which allows the governments in Dublin and Belfast to cooperate in various areas, including agriculture, education and transport. The UK, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the European Commission have all agreed that the withdrawal process cannot undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
Once the UK leaves the EU, the only land border will be the 310-mile line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and decisions will have to be made on how to manage the movement of people and trade across that border. The UK, Ireland, and the EU have all said they want to maintain the Common Travel Area, which has been in place for most of the period since the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The CTA allows free movement of British and Irish citizens between the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. The agreement also gives access to various government services in each country. Ireland will continue to allow free movement for citizens in the other EU countries, while the UK is thinking about an inland control approach. Through access to labour markets and social security, the UK will enforce immigration policy without requiring checks on people crossing the Irish border. This move would greatly affect and possibly lead to the breakdown of the CTA.
The UK, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the European Commission have also all agreed there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, for trade as well as people (European Commission Joint Report). The UK’s decision to leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union means that it will become a “third country” to the EU, creating a land border between the UK and the EU. This is the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and if no arrangements are made for the Irish border, the EU will have no choice but to put in place the standard checks it has at its border with other third countries. These would include both customs checks, documentation of products, proof of where the good originates, collection of tariffs, and regulatory checks, all to verify that goods comply with the EU’s standards.
Last November, UK Prime Minister Theresa May published her original Brexit plan that included an Irish border backstop. The backdrop is an insurance policy to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the UK leaves the EU without securing a concrete deal. Both the UK and EU agree on the need for a backstop to ensure no hard border returns.
The backstop was the most hotly debated issue in the parliamentary debates on the draft Withdrawal Agreement. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the unionist and socially conservative party political party in Northern Ireland. The DUP is also in a coalition with May and her Conservative Party in Parliament and they are notably pro-Brexit. In January, however, their 10 MPs in Parliament voted against Prime Minister May’s Brexit Plan. The party has always been against a “special status” for Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations, saying any differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain could threaten to break up the United Kingdom.
To the DUP, the backstop represents everything they don’t want for Northern Ireland: regulatory differences that mean only Northern Ireland would continue to follow some EU rules, no time limit, and the ability to exit the backstop would need to be agreed jointly by the UK and EU. On December 4, 2017, DUP leader Arlene Foster said that the DUP “will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom.” Foster also added that the DUP also does not want to see any changes to the current border arrangements between the North and the Republic.
A majority of people in Northern Ireland, however, support the backstop (most likely due to the fact it would give Northern Ireland special access to both the UK and EU markets). In January of this year, the UK government published proposals on how the UK can influence both the decision to use the backstop and its governance if it comes into effect. The proposals also reaffirmed the UK’s commitment that the rest of the UK will abide by the Single Market regulations being applied in Northern Ireland.
Ireland and Northern Ireland also share a single electricity market and electrical infrastructure. Keeping this arrangement will require Northern Ireland to continue to comply with EU regulation, without having any say over their development. If this agreement is not kept in tact, the single electricity market could be reversed, along with any benefits brought about by it. A notice from the UK Government published in October 2018 said if the UK leaves the EU with no deal, electrical supply from Ireland to Northern Ireland could be disrupted.
One of the problems for the Ireland is that its economy is intertwined with the economy in the UK. Currently, around 80% of the goods Ireland exports are transported to the UK or go through the UK. Ireland also sources 41% of its food imports and 55% of its fuel imports from the Britain. According to the Irish Ministry of Finance in October 2016, Brexit “is expected to have a material negative impact on the Irish economy.” A report from the Irish Government also called for “the closest possible trading relationship between the EU and the UK.”
On January 15, 2019 members of parliament rejected Prime Minister May’s Brexit deal by 432 votes to 202 - which is a historic political defeat in Britain. Then on March 12, after Theresa May had gone back to the EU to secure further legal assurances, Parliament rejected the deal again. And March 29, which was the original day that the UK was due to leave the EU, Parliament rejected the deal for a third time. Since Parliament did not approve Theresa May's withdrawal deal in a vote on March 12, May was forced to ask other EU leaders to delay Brexit. They agreed to postpone it until May 22 if MPs approved her deal in a new vote. On March 29, the UK missed that deadline and faced leaving on April 12 instead. But May has now gone back to the EU to ask for another extension - which the EU has agreed to. The new deadline is October 31. However, the UK can leave before then if May can get her deal approved by Parliament. The government will continue talks with Labour to try to come up with a solution. If the two sides do not come to an agreement, Theresa May has said she will propose additional options to members of parliament to work out a future plan.