18 April 2018

Last week brought the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which helped bring an end to thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland. The GFA is a collaborative achievement between the political parties of Belfast and the UK and Irish government, which established the political and social framework to create stability and peace in Northern Ireland. Both UK and Irish governments have rightly pledged to protect the agreement in all its parts after Brexit.

Yet, in a week where you might have expected British-Irish political relations to centre on celebrating this shared milestone, the discourse on both sides was noticeably tense. The strain in bilateral relations is in a large part a (logical) consequence of Brexit. As I noted earlier, while the outline of a future relationship is now emerging, the unanswered question of how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland risks provoking a real crisis. The Irish government secured the inclusion of a “backstop” option for an open Irish border as part of the December joint report – this aims to ensure that if no alternative agreement is reached, the UK will agree to remain part of the relevant aspects of the EU single market and customs union to prevent a hard border. However, the report contained inherent contradictions and all sides cannot agree on what this backstop will look like in practice. This persisting discord appears to have coloured a number of recent UK and Irish statements.

Speaking in London last week, Brexit Secretary David Davis controversially suggested that the new Irish government under Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has allowed room for “quite a strong influence for Sinn Féin,” slowing down the process of Brexit negotiations. This displays quite a significant misreading of Ireland’s position. Perhaps Davis was trying to highlight Varadkar’s stronger rhetoric and more nationalist tone – former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, urged Varadkar and Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney to focus on an agreement with “sensitive language in order to achieve the outcome we want.” Or maybe Davis wanted to suggest that Varadkar’s position in a minority government leaves him minimal room to manoeuvre or be flexible – the Brexit spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, the Irish government’s confidence-and-supply partner and Ireland’s biggest opposition party, recently warned Varadkar not to “capitulate” on the need for an open border.

But while political considerations may affect Varadkar’s tone, the concept of a hard border is an anathema to all Irish political parties. Davis’ suggestion that Varadkar’s hard position on the border is the result of a new “strong political role” for Sinn Féin misunderstands Irish thinking. It was striking, for example, that former Irish premier Bertie Ahern – one of the architects of the GFA – last week said that if Ireland faced a choice between a British solution with minimal new border controls, or “playing hardball” with the support of the EU to push the UK into a customs union, it would have to “play hardball.” Nor is it only the other Irish parties that take a similar overall view to Varadkar: others have pointed out that voters would find it hard to support a Taoiseach that idly accepted new restrictions between Northern Ireland the Republic, and Ahern said last week that a hard border simply wouldn’t be possible because “ordinary people” would pull it down.

Elsewhere, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, had to apologise on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement after recordings emerged of him describing the GFA as a “shibboleth” that was “played up” by the Irish government for economic reasons. Beyond the recklessness of this statement, it’s worth pointing out that this is an odd position for a front-bench member of the Labour party, given Labour recently set forward proposals for a new UK-EU customs union in part in order “to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland.”

But UK figures are not alone in adopting less conciliatory language. Speaking in Dublin last week Ireland’s EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan, said the British flag would be “hauled down” from the EU institutions next year, and joked, “Yes, [the UK] will leave the Union but it only wants to go some of the way towards leaving…You might say it doesn’t want to change its EU outfit, just its shoes.” Yet both the EU and Ireland have stated their preference for the UK to choose to remain closely integrated post-Brexit.

More starkly, while Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed the agreement for a Brexit transition period at last month’s European Council summit, he made a pointed remark about what position this offered the UK: “For the best part of two years after the UK leaves the European Union, they’ll still be bound by rules and regulations on European laws that they won’t have an input to.” This came after the government had faced domestic accusations that it was turning Britain into a “vassal state” of the EU for two years. Varadkar also suggested the UK had “changed its position” and accepted the inclusion of a backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement, despite ruling it out earlier. This is a misrepresentation – Theresa May said no British Prime Minister could accept the proposal put forward by the EU, which would see a border imposed between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. She had not reneged on the commitment to include a backstop protocol. These statements are particularly striking in light of the Taoiseach’s suggestion last year that the UK would have “no closer friend than Ireland” in the next stage of talks. Interestingly, this commitment has not been repeated since.

Tensions in the British-Irish relationship are to a certain extent to be expected because of Brexit. And these examples do not indicate the significant unravelling of what have become strong bilateral ties (it is also worth noting that UK and Irish officials continue to work closely together to arrive at a solution for the border). But Brexit presents a difficult obstacle, and the nature of the negotiations means Ireland and the UK are sitting on opposite sides of the table – Ireland’s Simon Coveney recently heralded the show of “unambiguous solidarity…from the largest country in the European Union” after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pledged Germany will do everything it can to prevent a hard border. Yet no solution to this problem can be found and effectively implemented unless British and Irish governments maintain strong cooperation and mutual trust.

If, as in Bertie Ahern’s example, a situation occurs towards the end of negotiations where Ireland draws on the weight of the EU to force the UK to accept a customs union or risk the whole deal collapsing, the outcome is a lose-lose. Even if the UK agrees to a customs union at the last minute, the sentiment of having been strong-armed into it will significantly damage the British-Irish relationship. Will a solution to the Irish border that is underpinned by weak UK-Ireland relations really be sustainable? Nor can the UK bargain on the other 26 EU member states pushing Ireland to climb down from its position and accept minimal controls on goods crossing the border. This would surely create highly tense political relations between the UK and Ireland, as well as Ireland and the EU. And yet Britain’s proposed technical solutions to the border would require a strong foundation of trust, co-ordination and communication between all parties.

No answer to the border question is yet clear, but the road there will not be made easier by weakening British-Irish relations. Any solutions that have been put on the table are unacceptable to one side or another. It is likely that all sides will in the end have to agree a less-than-perfect arrangement for any solution to prove sustainable. The question will be what are the UK, Ireland and the EU willing to live with?