There’s never a dull moment in politics and the focus continues to rest firmly on Brexit. But since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister there’s been a change in tempo, and somehow the stakes seem higher.
Last week, Boris Johnson wrote to Donald Tusk, setting out his vague ‘plans’ for Northern Ireland. The response from Tusk et al was, unsurprisingly, unmoving. And don’t expect it to change anytime soon – the EU is almost certainly taking its lead from Ireland, signalling its overarching role as defender and protector of other smaller EU states. Until (and if) there is a softening in position from Varadkar, there won’t be any change in rhetoric from the EU.
On the other hand, the UK’s somewhat familiar position is unlikely to change much either, as Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party try, with a renewed focus to remove Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party’s raison d’être. Even if Boris can achieve a change to the backstop, it won’t be enough. He’s made it clear that only a complete removal of the backstop will be acceptable to Parliament. Given previous parliamentary support for the Brady Amendment, why this hardening in position? Quite simply, Boris Johnson and his closest advisers are preparing for an election, and their biggest threat isn’t the Labour Party or the Lib Dems; it’s the Brexit Party. This isn’t the first time the Conservative Party found itself in this position and we all remember how well things ended for them the last time.
In the EU, it is clear that from the start of Brexit negotiations both Merkel and Macron underestimated the complexity of the Northern Irish situation and how it would impact Brexit (in fairness the same can also be said of the British and Irish governments’ understanding). In particular Merkel failed to grasp the need for any future arrangement to have not just majority support in Northern Ireland but also the backing of both of its main communities. There are some signs that Merkel now recognises this. There are few signs, however, that Macron does – the French president unhelpfully suggested over the weekend that Irish unity ‘would solve all the problems’.
The firm stance that both the EU and UK has adopted seems to make it almost impossible to envisage anything but a no-deal scenario. And in that event, can and will the ‘awesome foursome’ survive?
From the off, Boris was keen to portray himself as the Prime Minister for the Union, taking the spotlight away from London and directly to the people outside of the ‘Westminster bubble’, with visits to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales within his first week of becoming Prime Minister. Given that Northern Ireland is set to become the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU state, Boris’ focus on the Union and his visit to the province was critical. Northern Ireland’s unique situation already adds a level of complexity to the negotiations, but it’s troubled and recent history makes the situation all the more difficult.
Although support for Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has decreased, support for the backstop across Ireland remains strong, particularly amongst those in border towns, who are set to be most impacted by a no-deal Brexit. If we end up in a no-deal situation, we will cease to have a trade deal with the EU, making us a “third country”. This means that some form of border check will have to be implemented although the question of how, what and where is an issue, particularly as the British government has promised not to “put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
Border checks are a reminder of darker days and tensions are already rising on both sides of the political divide. Not only does this cause issues for Ireland, but it could have a knock-on impact on the UK’s ability to strike future trade deals. The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, has already issued a warning to the White House about “overpromising” any US-UK trade deal, specifically warning against agreeing any deal which threatens the Belfast Agreement. Given that Congress is required to ratify the eventual trade deal, Trump should take heeds of those warnings.
Despite the initial ambition of enhancing the Union, the reality of leaving the EU may end up with quite the opposite. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and both have always been divided about their desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. But now, more than ever, the strength of the Union is being tested. The SNP has touted the idea of an IndyRef 2 ever since the result of the EU Referendum was announced, and this has only grown since Boris Johnson entered Downing Street.
Back in 2011, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that across the political divide, just 16 per cent of respondents were in favour of unification. Since the referendum result, attitudes have been shifting, and polling indicates that support for remaining in the UK hinges on how Brexit is resolved. Last September, a poll suggested that more than half of respondents (52 per cent) said they would vote for a united Ireland after Brexit, with 39 per cent wishing to stay part of the UK. The support for unification increased when respondents were asked about a hard border being implemented. However, in the event that the UK would remain in the EU, the majority of respondents were also in favour of remaining in the UK.
The situation isn’t completely black and white, there is still a significant number of people in Northern Ireland (c40%) who favour remaining in the United Kingdom, come what may. The same old tensions exist and despite the focus on protecting the Belfast Agreement, the Brexit fallout may exasperate those underlying issues. Whether or not the Union can endure will depend on the arrangements agreed for Northern Ireland/Ireland and how well the UK weathers potential no-deal storms. The Union has held firm in the face of adversity before, but only time will tell if it can do so again.
Samantha Beggs is an Associate at DRD Partnership in London.