Brexit is in trouble but not because of the Irish backstop. The backstop is supposed to be a temporary arrangement to keep the Irish border open, writes Michael Keating.
The UK would remain within the customs union and Northern Ireland within single market rules while an overall trade deal is negotiated. Yet only if that future deal also keeps the Irish border open will it be possible to end the backstop. Keeping the border open will still require customs and regulatory harmonization with Europe, whether for the whole of the UK or for Northern Ireland alone.
This could mean a ‘Norway plus’ deal, including both the single market and the customs union. Yet the withdrawal agreement does not specify what the future relationship will be. The accompanying political statement is vague and leaves almost all options open. Even if the Government were to get its withdrawal agreement through Parliament, that would mark the beginning and not the end of the negotiations; and there would still be no majority for any particular form of Brexit.
Dr Mary C. Murphy, Jean Monnet Chair at University College Cork, speaks to a deepening sense of unease in Ireland about the broader implications of Brexit:
Following the UK vote in favour of Leave, the Irish government moved swiftly to identify its priorities for the Brexit negotiation period. These included: minimising the impact on trade and the Irish economy; protecting the Northern Ireland peace process; maintaining the Common Travel Area; and influencing the future of the European Union.
In mitigating the risks to the peace process, the Irish government has been explicit in its desire to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, to protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and to support continued north-south cooperation. Simultaneously, the Irish government wishes to maintain close trade between the UK and EU/Ireland and to minimise the regulatory burden for goods transiting the UK.
To achieve these twin objectives – no hard border on the island of Ireland and no barriers to trade between the UK and Ireland – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar favours the UK staying in the customs union and single market. However, in the absence of such a prospect, the Irish government supports the inclusion of the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. It is envisaged as an insurance policy in the absence of alternative solutions.
In welcoming the draft Withdrawal Agreement, the Taoiseach stated:
The text makes clear that this backstop would apply “unless and until” a better solution is agreed. I firmly hope that we can achieve that better solution, and will be working strenuously to that end’.
The Irish government’s support for the backstop is a pragmatic rather than a political position – a means to maintain existing practices and conditions on the island of Ireland as set out by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement if other options do not materialise.
No route to United Ireland
For Northern Ireland unionists, however, it is not the Irish government’s stated position which is problematic, rather it is more often than not the manner in which that position is framed. When Foreign Minister Simon Coveney talks about achieving a united Ireland ‘in my political lifetime’, this is met with alarm by a unionist community which has long felt vulnerable and besieged. Unionists were similarly dismayed when Varadkar promised nationalists in Northern Ireland that ‘You will never again be left behind by an Irish government’. The unionist response to these pronouncements is to question the motivations of the Irish government, and to perceive a link between the aspiration for Irish unity and the Irish government’s policy on Brexit. In reality however, there is little evidence to suggest that the Irish government is angling to achieve Irish unity via Brexit.
There are no policy documents, no public consultations, no Dáil debates, no civil society movements and no media sources actively agitating for a united Ireland. Notably, there is also a reluctance among Irish political parties to enter a coalition government (or a confidence and supply arrangement) with Sinn Féin, the party most wedded to future Irish unity.
The priority issue for the Irish government is navigating Brexit in a manner which protects Irish economic interests, the peace process and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. There is unwavering commitment to the terms and spirit of the Agreement which includes provision for Irish unity by consent only. There is little appetite among the main Irish political parties for a discussion of Irish unity at this time, and perhaps more significantly, in the longer-term, there is no inevitability about the outcome of any such referendum in the Republic of Ireland. A recent RTÉ/BBC poll demonstrated that although 62 per cent of Northern Ireland voters perceive that Brexit increases the likelihood of a united Ireland, just 35 per cent of Irish voters feel likewise.
Moreover, unionists should not be fatalistic in their assessment. Talk of Irish unity, or even the holding of a border poll, does not presuppose the achievement of Irish unification. In fact, a border poll may conceivably copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s constitutional status when the many political, economic, social and cultural dimensions of a new Ireland are examined in depth. The assumption of majority support for Irish unity – among voters North and South – is by no means a given, particularly when it is being elicited in a political vacuum where discussion of detail and logistics is completely absent.
Let’s be clear, all Irish governments have aspired to Irish unity. However, for the current Irish government, achieving the least disruptive Brexit is its highest priority. Other debates, unexpected crises and new priorities will no doubt materialise in the longer-term, but for now stability and the status quo take precedence, and talk of Irish unity simply does not conform to that agenda.
Edited version of posts on the Centre on Constitutional Change site
Kim Lane Scheppele Guardian 17 January 2019 A semi-Brexit with just England and Wales leaving