On December 4, Brexit negotiators announced a breakthrough on one of the most contentious issues before them with regard to the particulars of Great Britain’s (or, strictly, the United Kingdom’s) withdrawal from the European Union.
EU negotiators had previously wanted the wording of an agreement to say that there would be “no regulatory divergence” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Such language would have suggested a continued de facto membership of the North in the EU as a customs union. That was not acceptable to London.
In the context of British politics it is fair to say that Brexit is a right-of-center cause, as is the expectation of a continued close political union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The left, which is at best reluctant about Brexit, may well be happen to see a continued porous border on the island to the west, which will become as events unfold the only land border between the UK and the EU.
May’s government is committed to walking a fine line – no hard border between ‘Irelands,’ no too-hard-a-Brexit, but no compromise or reversal on Brexit itself. These points are intimately connected.
Right Wing View
The near-erasure of the border between Ireland North and south, for most practical purposes (freedom of movement and trade), was a key part of the “Good Friday” Agreement that brought an end to ‘The Troubles.”
The Belfast Telegraph is a traditionally Unionist paper (that is, its political stance favors continued membership of the North in the UK). Yet a recent poll of its readers indicated that 77% think the North should stay in the Customs Union. The new agreement between UK and EU will help avoid a political crisis for Theresa May’s government if the population of the North is satisfied with a de facto customs union achieved by such language as “regulatory alignment.”
But the most rightward in the North, and their political leadership, may want a crisis anyway. The Independent is reporting that leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party says it “will not accept” a deal of the sort apparently reached between UK and EU. Its view is that Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as does the rest of the United Kingdom. The logical implication: if the rest of the United Kingdom is not to be “aligned” with the Republic of Ireland, then neither is the North.
Left Wing View
In a tweet on December 1, Andrew Pierce, an English journalist and broadcaster, said “Norway, not in EU, has a frictionless border with Sweden which is in EU, so why can we not do the same with Ireland to kick start Brexit?”
This set off a debate in the comments on that tweet over whether “freedom of movement” was the important distinction between the Scandinavian and the Irish cases cited.
The idea that Northern Ireland may continue to have a close relationship with the Republic of Ireland and by inference with the EU, has given hope to those who would like to reverse the whole Brexit program. If they can’t do it directly they’ll do it piecemeal. Thus, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Surgeon, says that Scotland too should be allowed to “effectively stay in the single market.”
There’s even some talk of the City of London seeking a close relationship with the EU.
Whether the May government can stick to its fine line and treat Northern Ireland as a de facto special case without unraveling the whole ideas of Brexit is, of course, still up in the air, if not the Eire.