Why Northern Ireland is a Headache for Brexit

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Having voted to leave the EU in June of 2016, negotiations on Britain's departure are now in full swing. But there proves to be one persistent and exasperating headache for Theresa May's Brexit; that of Ireland.

The lush green island of Ireland

The lush green island of Ireland

The lush green island of Ireland has had a long and arduous relationship with the UK (especially with England). Much like Scotland and Wales, Ireland's gorgeous countryside has seemed too irresistible for English eyes. England and her lords and kings have been trying to exert their influence on the island since the early 1st millennia AD. This initial colonisation of Ireland took the form of the Lordship of Ireland (this lord was also the King of England) and followed on from the Norman invasion of (what we now call) Great Britain. However, despite the claims of the English Kings, English control of the Island was never absolute until the formal creation of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1542 by Henry VIII. Ireland was not fully absorbed into the United Kingdom until 1801, a century after Scotland in 1707 and almost 300 years after Wales (Laws in Wales Act 1536).

Anti-Irish propaganda from  Punch  magazine, published in December 1867. It shows an Irish catholic sitting on a keg of gunpowder, alluding to the Guy Falks plot to kill the King and blow up Parliament.

Anti-Irish propaganda from Punch magazine, published in December 1867. It shows an Irish catholic sitting on a keg of gunpowder, alluding to the Guy Falks plot to kill the King and blow up Parliament.

But there is a reason why the act of union between the UK and Ireland was not until much later; Ireland was treated more like a colony by the English than the other nations of Great Britain. For, unlike the rest of the UK Ireland was Catholic and not Protestant. Though this (hopefully) amounts to little today, it was paramount in much of protestant England's history. During English and later British rule of Ireland, local language, culture, and religion were all subject to subjugation and represented as barbaric and savage. Ireland was also ruled by an English Ruling Caste and British customs, laws, and language were all imposed. It is perhaps not surprising that there was much disgruntlement at the British rule of Ireland. This discontent came to a head in the early 20th century and resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 (Ireland became a Dominion of the British Empire following in the path of Canada, The Cape Colony, New Zealand, and Australia). There was however one sticking point, six counties in the north (predominantly protestant) opted not to join the free state. This lead to much dispute between the new independent Ireland and the UK. A period known as the 'troubles' emerged as a continuation of Irish nationalism (in both the North and the South) in favour of a United Ireland. This period lasted from around the 1960s until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

The Shankill road, Belfast during the troubles.

The Shankill road, Belfast during the troubles.

The Good Friday Agreement was a monumental landmark in Anglo-Irish relations. For the first time in history both sides agreed upon the existence of Northern Ireland as a part of the UK. It also guaranteed that if the Northern Irish were to change their mind, the UK would peacefully accept the creation of a United Ireland. In addition to all of this, the GFA (Good Friday Agreement) saw the creation of several Anglos-Irish and Irish-Northern Irish intuitions whose sole role was to facilitate the continuing of good relations. Much of the GFA was built upon constructive ambiguity (the deliberate use of ambiguous language in negotiations in order to avoid disagreement or deadlock ). Most of this ambiguity revolved around the border between the two countries. The idea was to create as smooth a border as possible so as to create the illusion of a unified country. This would satisfy those who wanted a Unified Ireland because for all parts of daily life Ireland was United. One could work in the North and live in the South, withouyt seing any tangible diffrence or challenge. It also appeased the unionists in the North as officially and politically speaking Northern Ireland was part of the UK. It also helped that the GFA ensured that any Irishman (northern or southern) was entiteled to hold either a British or Irish passport or both.

The seamless border was facilitated by the fact that both the UK and Ireland were members of the EU (They both joined in 1973). The Single Market (SM) and the Customs Union (CU) allowed people to live, work and commute freely from either side of Ireland because the SM meant that there was no need to check what tariffs were due, as the tariffs in Ireland and the UK were the same. The CU also meant that there was no need to declare anything that one might be bringing across the border, as once something is within the EU it does not need to be declared at every border.

This is where Brexit comes into play. Because, the current policy of the British government is to leave both the SM and the CU. This, if applied to Northern Ireland, it might threaten the GFA. It might also see the re-emergence of border checks, something reminiscent to many of the infamous 'troubles'. One could suggest that Northern Ireland should be an exception in order to avoid any more 'troubles'. But here in lies the headache. An unaligned Northern Ireland would mean undermining the governments 'supply and demand' deal with the DUP, potentially taking away the Tory Party's working majority (which in turn might trigger a fresh election and create yet more uncertainly). An unaligned UK would also provoke Scotland and the City of London to lobby for their own special relationship with the EU, leaving only England and Wales completely outside. One might then suggest that the government opt to keep the entire UK in the SM and CU, so as to avoid issue in Ireland. But this would completely defeat the point of leaving the EU as the UK would not be able to make its own trade agreements and would be subject to EU law that it would not have a say on.

The UK, at least for the moment, is thus in a bit of a pickle over Ireland. That is not to say that there is no solution to be found somewhere. After all the possibility of something like the Good Friday Agreement was once ridiculed by some. Perhaps a united Ireland is on the horizon, but then again, perhaps not.