In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019. For the past three years, the U.K. has been struggling to formulate an effective leave arrangement with the EU that has the approval of the British Parliament, and every attempt at a meaningful plan has been voted down; this leaves the U.K. with nothing as they approach the deadline. If Parliament is unable to pass a plan by the March 29 deadline, they will leave with what is called a “no-deal,” which would revert the U.K. to World Trade Organization standards, slowing down trade and travel between the U.K. and the EU to the point of a standstill. What many are unaware of, however, is what the main hurdle has been for each plan presented to parliament: the concern over the Irish Border. The U.K.’s handling of the Irish border highlights the shortsideness of the original referendum while threatening a hard-fought peace that has existed in Ireland since 1998.
The problem with the Irish border is that it is the only land border the U.K. shares with another European Union country, located between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As such, it would be expected that under a no-deal scenario, a barrier will be erected in some capacity along the Irish border so that trade and travel can be monitored. This might sound like a normal thing to exist between two distinct countries but it isn’t when history is considered. Ireland has a long and troubled history of violence and resistance to separating the north and south, which came to a boiling point during the late 1960s and lasted until 1998, during what is now known as “The Troubles.”
“The Troubles” refers to the roughly 30-year conflict that occurred primarily in the north of Ireland between the pro-reunification Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the pro-British unionists/loyalists. The conflict is largely considered a guerilla war as these two paramilitary organizations were responsible for several shootouts and bombings throughout Ireland. The chaos eventually prompted the British to send troops over to maintain peace and erect border checkpoints separating the north from the south. Their efforts backfired as their presence only emboldened the IRA and made the border a target for bombings. The violence continued well into the 1990s until all sides met and signed the Good Friday Agreement, which is seen throughout Europe today as a modern political miracle. The agreement outlined the relationship between the Republic, Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., and brought with it a tentative peace that lasts to this day. In the agreement, the north remained a part of the U.K. but was given the opportunity to vote for reunification whenever it desired as well as offering Northern Irish people the choice to apply for both U.K. and Irish citizenship. Most importantly, however, the agreement resulted in the removal of border checkpoints and made trade and travel on the island as seamless as crossing state lines is in the U.S.
The main issue of Brexit is how to uphold the promises made to those who voted for Brexit while still maintaining the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement. In order for the UK to leave, they need to determine where their border with the EU will begin. If they place it in Ireland, separating the north from the south, it will violate the agreement and likely mean a return to the Troubles, as the threat of a barrier has already increased tensions on the island. As the deadline approaches and a no-deal becomes more likely, news of weapons stashes along the border and police warnings of increased violence have already been reported. An alternative to an Irish border would be to place it in the Irish sea, which would separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. and subject it to EU regulations; however this is out of the question since the north would never accept an arrangement that separates them from the rest of the U.K. A recent compromise presented by Prime Minister Theresa May would have the U.K. remain in a temporary customs union with the EU while a permanent alternative is figured out, a plan referred to commonly as the “backstop.” The backstop would have bought the U.K. time to come up with a viable plan without having to worry about an Irish border or the impending leave date in March. Unfortunately, this plan was shot down with historic opposition, leaving the U.K. with nothing come March.
Parliament’s inability to present and pass a meaningful plan that solves the issue of the Irish border highlights the current ineptness of the British government while also pointing out the fundamental problems that plagued the initial referendum. In 2016, the referendum given to the British people was a simple “leave” or “stay” question. It never took into account the complexities that would inevitably exist if they chose to leave and all the problems they would face as a result. The “leave” campaign never spoke about what would happen to Ireland if the U.K. left the EU, nor did they present any other plan going forward after they had won. Looking forward, the U.K. is again considering another referendum, but that will likely result in more problems for themselves. If they choose another binary question for the electorate it will oversimplify the problem again and divide the population as the first one did. If they choose to offer several options then they face the likely probability that they will get no clear majority for any option. Lastly, even if the U.K. manages to coordinate a referendum they will still have to get approval from the EU to extend article 50, which outlines the process to leave the EU, and postpone the leave date since otherwise they won’t have any time to hold a referendum.
The crisis at the Irish border shines a light on the failure of the referendum and the British government. The shortsightedness of the referendum has thrown the island of Ireland into uncertainty as the Irish prepare for the possibility of a return to the violence that dominated the second half of the 20th century. As the March 29 deadline approaches, there is sadly no end in sight for the issues plaguing Brexit, and Ireland may be forced to suffer through their damaging effects.