As of today, the inexorable and intractable logic of the Irish border has come back to haunt British politics and to divide the Conservative and Unionist Party both within itself and from the country.
Solving the Irish Question has always been hard but, to say the least, it is surely easier for “a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” than to resolve the problem which Theresa May now faces. With Ireland’s economy heavily dependent on exports to – and via – the UK, their government has made clear that they will veto any Brexit deal which includes a “hard border” between the Republic and Northern Ireland. However, neither the UK nor the EU could possibly accept an entirely borderless outcome, because there would be no way of policing the Single Market or the Customs Union (the UK’s proposal that non-border technology will suffice is hardly realistic across one of the the most smuggled border regions in Europe). It’s easy to forget that the EU is just as concerned to protect its borders eg from chlorine-washed chicken imported into the UK from the USA, as the UK is worried about free movement of workers from elsewhere in the UK.
As a result, the UK negotiators had moved to a position where, in effect, Northern Ireland would retain the same market rules as the Republic. In practice, in terms of business and economic regulation, Northern Ireland would have become closer to the Republic than the Kingdom, presumably with the real customs border being at British ports. That would, of course, solve the Republic’s problem of avoiding a physical border but the inevitable side effect is that the United Kingdom would cease to be entirely united! Suddenly, the prospects of a united Ireland would get a lot closer; and that, of course, is total anathema to the DUP upon whose votes the government depends. Indeed, it’s not a really positive outcome for anyone who is truly a “Unionist” as regards Northern Ireland which, of course, includes many Conservatives.
We will see if the various negotiators can solve this in the coming days, but it’s not easy to see how. If the Irish government won’t accept a deal, the EU won’t begin trade negotiations and a hard Brexit moves a ratchet closer. On the other hand, if the government accepts the Irish position and the DUP withdraws support from the Tories, the government’s position becomes particularly precarious.
There is, of course, an obvious solution, which is that the UK remains in the Single Market and Customs Union – or better still, within the EU as a whole. However, if the Brextremists are willing to see massive economic damage from a no-deal Brexit, a loss of regional and global influence and the potential departure of Scotland from the UK, a little bit of civil war in Northern Ireland isn’t going to put them off. In 1914, the Conservative Party welcomed a declaration of war on Germany as a welcome relief from the Irish crisis – let’s hope we can find a better solution this time round!