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The breakdown of the deal on the Irish border is a symptom of a larger problem

Posted by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz (Admin) Dec 6, 2017

 The breakdown of the deal on the Irish border is a symptom of a larger problem,   writes McCauley Pugh (LSE).

 When it was announced on December 4th that London and the European Union had   reached an agreement on the Irish border, it was immediately peculiar that the Democratic   Unionist. Party would agree to any “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and   the EU. The reason that the government was presumptively able to reach that agreement was revealed: the DUP had not been informed about it.

The collapse of the agreement on December 4th is just the beginning of what is likely to be a challenging time for Northern Ireland. The problem has become well known over the last few days. If Northern Ireland leaves the European Union Customs Union, there will need to be some sort of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If Northern Ireland remains in the customs union or remains mostly aligned with it, there will need to be some sort of a “border” on the Irish Sea. No one has come up with an adequate solution to get around this problem.

Even if the agreement on December 4th had gone ahead, it would not have solved this problem. The breakdown of the agreement was disappointing for many, in particular for the government of the Republic of Ireland. But the DUP is a democratically legitimate party representing the viewpoints of a large portion of the population of Northern Ireland. Unionists see themselves as British, think a close relationship with Britain is imperative and are deeply against the prospect of a united Ireland. It is therefore not surprising that the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland would reject a deal that would have meant divergence from Britain and integration with the Republic of Ireland.

Nationalists are well represented in the Brexit negotiations as well. Their interests are closely aligned with those of the Republic of Ireland, and the EU has said that there will be no deal that Dublin does not support. The Irish government has made it clear that, despite the events of December 4th, their position on the Irish Border has not changed.

The DUP has a great deal of influence over London’s decisions on Brexit through its confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservatives. Since Dublin’s position is in many ways opposed to that of the DUP, it is not easy to predict an end to this standoff. Perhaps the DUP, fearful of a government lead by Jeremy Corbyn, may ultimately back down. But this would not solve the underlying problem. If the deal had gone ahead, it would have lead to the long-term problem of unionists being unhappy with Northern Ireland’s divergence from Britain. On the other hand, if, as First Minister Arlene Foster insists, Northern Ireland leaves the European Union “on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” nationalists would be enraged over Northern Ireland’s divergence from the Republic of Ireland.

We know from Northern Ireland’s recent history that if all sides do not support an agreement, then the agreement is unlikely to last. December 4th was not the first time that the DUP has been opposed to an accord on Northern Ireland. Ian Paisley, the founder of the DUP, was a major actor in the strikes that brought down the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. The DUP made its opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement clear in 1985 and, before campaigning that the people of Northern Ireland vote to reject it, completely sat out of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Good Friday Agreement did not function well until the DUP eventually supported its power-sharing provisions through the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement.

Brexit has interrupted many of the aspects that have brought relative stability to Northern Ireland. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland may be negatively impacted economically. In the past, when there was a political crisis in Northern Ireland, London, Dublin and Washington could intervene to address the issues. While the election of Donald Trump has landed the United States in its own chaotic situation, Brexit has been enough of a distraction for Dublin and London that the governments have not paid adequate attention to the political situation in Northern Ireland. This was likely a large factor in the collapse of the power-sharing government earlier this year.

The problem caused by Brexit that the events on December 4th highlighted is the interruption of the solution to the border problem. The EU has allowed the UK and the Republic of Ireland to become two integrating states. Blurring the lines of sovereignty was integral in solving the zero-sum border issue and eventually helped lead to the Good Friday Agreement, which brought the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland has recently enjoyed. The breakdown of the agreement on December 4th is just a symptom of this zero-sum problem that has returned. It is a problem for which no one has proposed a good solution and is likely to persist.

McCauley Pugh recently completed his MSc in Comparative Politics at LSE. He specialised in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. He completed his BA in Politics and Italian at University College Dublin. 

This post was edited on Dec 22, 2017 by Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz

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Comments (2)

Josh Sinclair says... Dec 6, 2017

Interesting, thanks for the post! Definitely very informative!

Ethan Wroe says... Dec 7, 2017

Although I'd argue Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will suffer from Brexit, if there's one positive thing that may come out of the overall deal is that serious issues could be discussed at Stormont post-Brexit. One fudge that could get the negotiations on from Phase 1 to Phase 2 is a package of customs-related powers being devolved from Westminster to Stormont. Stormont could end up deciding whether to pursue trade policy that mirrors the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain. Although I suspect this will very quickly lead to dysfunction in Stormont, at least there will be serious political issues discussed locally, which is not a bad thing.

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