You are here

Prime Minister Theresa May and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, at a 19 June press conference after talks at 10 Downing Street

The UK and Ireland: Stepping Away from the Brexit Cliff

Edward Burke
Commentary, 27 November 2017
UK, Europe
The Irish government needs to engage the Unionists in Northern Ireland to find some way to prevent a hard border on the island.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has had enough; for months, Dublin’s officials have warned their British counterparts that they needed reassurances that Brexit did not mean a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, Britain had paid lip service to that ambition but offered no concrete details. Sending a poorly briefed Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to Dublin on 17 November confirmed what some Irish officials had been arguing for some time: a different approach was required to get London’s attention.

Varadkar’s response was to bluntly state that unless Britain provided evidence that there will not be any ‘physical infrastructure’ – for example, customs checks – at the border, then Ireland would seek to block any progress to trade talks in the Brexit negotiations.

The EU has paid for so many of the structures and programmes supporting the Good Friday Agreement. However, that couldn’t persuade Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lord Trimble to vote ‘remain’ in the referendum

The ultimatum was greeted with shock, if not outrage, in London; some in Britain still struggle to view Ireland as a separate, European state with increasingly divergent national interests.

Varadkar is also evidently frustrated with Ulster Unionism – the onus, he says, should be on the Brexiteers, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to come up with solutions to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit.

The EU may have helped to bring relative economic prosperity, but by blurring borders it also diluted symbols of British sovereignty on the island of Ireland. And that has caused unease and contradictory responses, evidenced by DUP leader and former First Minister Arlene Foster describing EU funds as being vital to Northern Ireland’s prosperity in 2015 but then campaigning for a ‘leave’ vote in 2016.

The EU has paid for so many of the structures and programmes supporting the Good Friday Agreement. However, that couldn’t persuade Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lord Trimble to vote ‘remain’ in the referendum.

So, there is a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction in Unionism today. The DUP does not want a ‘hard border’, but it seems that we may get there anyway.

Many Unionists predict that Sinn Féin will be in government in Dublin within a few years, so if Northern Ireland is separated from Britain in its relations with the EU, an intolerable image comes to mind. Not only will the province be in effect represented by Dublin in its relations with the EU, but also Sinn Féin ministers will have leverage where Unionists have none.

Unionists are also far from convinced that there is an economic case for Northern Ireland remaining in the EU Customs Union and/or the Single Market. They are quick to point out that Northern Irish manufacturing sales to Britain are worth six times more than those to the Republic of Ireland, and for local agri-food the percentage of sales within the UK is approximately 75%.

What is more likely, and should happen, is that creative diplomatic language is found to emphasise that Northern Ireland will remain a priority in future talks between the EU and the UK

Consequently, any Irish kites flown about customs borders in the Irish Sea are likely to be pulled down almost immediately as Unionist MPs queue up to denounce such political and economic ‘absurdity’ from Dublin.

So, what, if anything, can be done to avoid worsening relations between Dublin and the DUP and between London and Dublin?

First, the Irish government needs to acknowledge that there will not be a customs border in the Irish Sea; Northern Ireland will not stay in the Customs Union if the rest of the UK leaves.

It is likely that if she wishes to survive as leader of the Conservative Party into 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May cannot provide sufficient guarantees to avoid a hard border (if such assurances can be offered at all) by next month’s EU summit. Varadkar has set a deadline that is unrealistic within the context of British politics.

The UK could still reconsider and stay in the Customs Union, but that will not be decided in the coming weeks. Moreover, it is far from certain that – if the UK increases the amount it is willing to pay to settle outstanding contributions to the EU budget, and has made progress on other areas (as it seems be doing) – the rest of the EU will back Ireland’s demands to prevent negotiations from moving on to trade talks.

What is more likely, and should happen, is that creative diplomatic language is found to emphasise that Northern Ireland will remain a priority in future talks between the EU and the UK. If the EU is not assured that special considerations have been put in place for Northern Ireland, then it reserves the right to pull the plug on negotiations at a future date.

Second, there is room for creative exceptions in the case of Northern Ireland. Even if the UK does leave the Customs Union and/or in the event of a failure to quickly agree a comprehensive free trade agreement with the UK, the EU could work with London to create a specific regime for Northern Irish goods and services (including and beyond agri-food), essentially exempting them from tariffs and most customs checks.

What the DUP's Arlene Foster requires are Conservative allies who can win over their party to avoid a hard Brexit

Special arrangements for Northern Ireland would build upon the EU’s experience of putting in place exceptional measures elsewhere – such as Croatia, Bosnia/the EU’s relationship with the North African Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, etc. (as suggested in the UK government’s August paper on Brexit and Northern Ireland).

Much would depend on whether Britain and Northern Ireland continued to mirror agricultural and other EU standards – but agreement or convergence on some sectors may be possible even if the UK leaves the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Dublin also needs to swallow its anger when it comes to the DUP. While some DUP MPs talk up the exceptional trade opportunities of Brexit, Foster is more worried – she has increasingly noted the risk to Northern Ireland’s economy arising from a hard Brexit.

She needs a way out of the current impasse and arguably would like to see the UK stay in the Customs Union. However, she cannot state that without giving fuel to those, particularly Sinn Féin, who would use this as further evidence that Northern Ireland must remain in the Customs Union even if Britain is outside.

What Foster requires are Conservative allies who can win over their party to avoid a hard Brexit. She will remain vague, non-committal until she is certain that there is such a majority, at least within the British cabinet.

The Irish government should discreetly, but persistently, reach out to the DUP and its supporters on the question of Brexit, particularly at the local level.

British, Irish and EU officials need to go back to what they have proved to be very good at in the recent past in Northern Ireland: finding solutions – or at least better alternatives – to seemingly impossible problems.

Edward Burke is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. He has written a broader analysis on this issue for the London-based Centre for European Reform. 

Banner image: Prime Minister Theresa May and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, at a 19 June press conference after talks at 10 Downing Street. Courtesy of UK.gov

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research