To understand why Ireland is important to the Brexit discussion, it is critical to review the complicated history of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Ireland – more properly the Republic of Ireland, a fellow member of the EU – is the independent country that occupies the majority of the Emerald Island. The northern part of the country is part of the United Kingdom and is known as Northern Ireland. The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is the only physical border between the UK and the EU.
If the UK leaves the EU exiting the Customs Union and the Single Market, then this border becomes critical. Overnight, on March 29 2019, this border will need to be policed for movement of people and goods between the EU and UK. Nothing can cross the border without a customs check.
So why can’t we have a simple customs check at specified points on the border? After all, that is how goods used to move between various countries in Europe before the Schengen Agreement and the Maastricht Treaty did away with these checks.
Lets go back a bit in time. Most people in Britain have forgotten that Ireland was once colonized and occupied by England with great brutality. A great deal of racism and religious bigotry was also in play. The Irish were supposed to be a feckless lot, and Victorian Protestant Britain harboured deep prejudices against Catholics (which most Irish people were). The struggle for Irish self-government, which began around the last 20 years of the 19th century, resulted in Ireland being given Home Rule in 1912, with lots of restrictions.
The lead up to Home Rule was a difficult period for Britain and it nearly split the country and its Home Army apart. As a cynical ploy, the British encouraged the Protestant settlers to agitate against Catholic rule and worked out a split of one of the provinces – Ulster.
Matters came to a head in the Easter Uprising of 1916 while Britain was at war. The Irish War of Independence, which began in 1919, was low-key in comparison to the carnage that had taken place across the Channel. But it was every bit as intense. The War ended in 1921 when the Irish Free State was created by partitioning the island and leaving Ulster in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has been a long-standing wound in the Irish heart and a source of violence and tension. The Catholics, via the IRA and its successors, have been in armed insurrection for quite some time. At various times the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Protestant militias have retaliated in kind. Much blood has been shed.
Peace came to Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement concluded in April 1998. The Agreement was an example of peace-making that took the highest calibre of self-less statesmanship on all sides – the British, the Irish, the Ulster Protestants and the Ulster Catholics.
The genius of the Agreement was that it recognized the existence of a common geographic, economic and social unit in the form of the island without in any form changing the political reality on the ground. Until 1998, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was a barbed wire fence and heavily militarized. Since both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were members of the EU and shared the same Single Market the Customs Union, it made no sense to keep the two entities economically apart.
As part of the Agreement, the IRA and its various offshoots were forced to demilitarize and destroy their weapons under the supervision of General de Chastain of the Canadian Army. The UK formally gave up its claim on Northern Ireland until such time as the people of Northern Ireland decided their future. The Republic of Ireland recognized this, and agreed to support Northern Ireland in any form until such time as the people decided what to do. There was no longer any need for border policing to stop weapons moving, because the former belligerents were part of the peace process.
It was a brilliant example of how long-standing conflicts can get resolved if both sides were willing to give a little and trusted each other. Ireland and the UK had become very friendly, the Irish were now a relatively wealthy country in their own right and the Irish leaders and the British leaders at that time had a very good personal equation. The colonial era leaders in both countries were long gone.
So why do the Irish not like the hard border, even though they are EU members? First, it puts an end to the cultural integration that had taken place between the two entities. People routinely live in Ireland and drive to Northern Ireland for work and vice versa. People live and love and marry across the border. The old religious divides were fading away and a sense of Irishness had begun to develop.
Secondly, the two economies are now quite closely linked. Goods and more importantly, services are routinely exported between the two entities. Car rental companies, for example, operate across the border. The same goes for professional services, medical care, you name it. A hard border will put an end to this exchange and instead, regulate it.
Britain could do one of two things. It can recognize that Northern Ireland needs to be closely allied with the rest of the island, and concede that the customs border with the EU is on the coast of Northern Ireland. This carries enormous political implications. The Protestant majority would now be in a de facto union with the Republic. While a bilateral agreement has governed mobility between the two for some years now, movement of a person from Belfast to London will not be affected. But provision of goods and services will be.
Or, she can place the customs border at the political border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But doing so cuts Northern Ireland off from the reality of the last twenty years – close economic integration with the Republic, free movement of people and goods, and a narrowing of the cultural and religious divide.
Both these options violate the Good Friday Agreement.
It astonishes me that at no point in the Brexit campaign was the Irish problem ever discussed. Certainly the Leave Campaign carefully concealed any concerns they may have had and instead concentrated on demonizing the EU.
The compromise that was worked out was: For an unspecified period of time, the United Kingdom would stay locked in the Customs Union and the Single Market, to protect the special status Northern Ireland enjoys in relation to the Republic of Ireland. The Common Travel Area Agreement between Ireland and the UK would stay in place. To ensure that no future UK government would withdraw from this arrangement, Ireland insisted that the withdrawal from this Backstop (as it has come to be called) will need the consent of the EU. Northern Ireland will have full access to the markets of the United Kingdom and vice versa.
Normally this would be a far-sighted and practical solution, but the Leave campaign do not like it – there is no withdrawal from the Customs Union and the Single Market. Further, Britain is now shackled to the EU for an unspecified period of time. The term “vassal state” was thrown around when the Irish Taoseach Leo Varadkar announced this agreement in December 2017. Moreover, the Northern Ireland government – lead by the Democratic Unionist Party which is Protestant and consider themselves British – oppose this arrangement because it removes their say in the future of the territory – and somehow makes them less British.
More than a year has passed. The English right wing and the Eton-educated snobs have said some awful and insensitive things about the Irish. The Irish and the EU show no signs of changing their stance. It is a very reasonable one and they are absolutely correct – they did not ask Britain to leave, and if the British ignored the Irish question during the lead-up to Brexit, then one cannot blame the Irish for taking a stand.
Brexit is no longer backed by reason, it is now a belief in some mythical future in which a buccaneering Britannia will conquer the world. It is very courageous of Theresa May to come to this agreement.
Since some sort of Brexit has to take place, in my view, Parliament must vote for the backstop to preserve the peace and secure the futures of the Northern Irish. Over time, the Northern Ireland situation will resolve itself. Lets not forget that the Good Friday Agreement stalls any territorial ambitions the United Kingdom may have on the Emerald Island. Northern Ireland’s natural future is with Ireland. If as expected, Britain suffers some economic damage after Brexit, the citizens of Northern Ireland may appreciate the gift given to them by the UK Government – the gift of choice.