The Irish question that could derail Brexit

Bearing the brunt: Border communities protest outside the Northern Irish parliament. © Getty

Could the Irish border dispute be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Theresa May has just one week to offer EU leaders a deal. But on Ireland she seems caught in an impossible bind.

The UK international trade secretary Liam Fox stoked tensions with Dublin yesterday by saying that the issue of the Irish border will not be finalised until post-Brexit trade arrangements between Britain and the EU are agreed.

His comments come as EU leaders prepare to decide at a summit in two weeks whether Brexit talks have made “sufficient progress” for negotiators to move on to a future trade relationship between the two sides.

The EU has given Theresa May until next Monday to come up with further proposals on several issues, including the border.

The government’s intention is to leave the single market, but that might be incompatible with maintaining an open border.

The Irish, desperate to maintain an open border, are playing hard-ball. The Irish Republic's EU commissioner has said that Dublin will "play tough to the end", threatening to veto Brexit talks moving on to discuss trade.

Theresa May is stuck, seemingly faced with three impossible options.

First, the UK pushes on with its plan to leave the single market. This means a hard border, complete with fences and passport checks. Ireland would then veto further Brexit talks, leading to a no-deal exit — or no exit at all.

Second, the UK leaves the single market, but the border is established between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This would enrage the Northern Irish DUP, which is propping up the minority Tory government, leading them to bring Theresa May’s administration down.

Third, the UK decides to stay in the single market and the border remains open. This would be unacceptable to Tory Brexiteers, who would then look to oust May.

Writing in The Guardian, Fintan O’Toole slams Brexiteers’ “reckless arrogance”, which he believes masks “an assumption that Ireland is an eccentric little offshoot of Britain that must shut its gob”.

But is this really such a big deal?

Bickering brothers

This will cause chaos, say some. There is no option in sight that could satisfy the British government, Brexiteers, the people on both sides of the Irish divide, and the EU. The Irish government holds all the aces, and it is hard to see how the government’s plan for Brexit can succeed.

But Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg disagrees. He believes the UK and Irish governments should simply defy the EU and refuse to erect border posts. The EU has backed down to its members’ demands in the past. “We have no obligation to put any border up … Challenge the EU to do it. I just don’t believe that they will,” he says. This is just another overblown, manufactured row.

You Decide

  1. Will the issue over the Irish border derail Brexit?
  2. Would a physical border between Northern Ireland (the UK) and the Republic of Ireland be such a bad thing?


  1. The UK has closer historical ties to Ireland than to any other country. As a class, discuss why the British media now pays so little attention to Ireland.
  2. Research one decade of Anglo-Irish relations, and give a five minute presentation about it to your class.

Some People Say...

“Good fences make good neighbours.”

Robert Frost

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The future of the UK-Irish border will be shaped by whether, and how, the UK and the EU reach agreement on some of the most highly disputed questions raised by Brexit, particularly trade and the rights of each other’s citizens. We know that both the British and the Irish governments are keen for the border to remain open, and that, as 15% of its exports go to the UK, the Republic of Ireland stands the most to lose from Britain’s trade ties to the EU being thrown up in the air.
What do we not know?
What the answer is. We do not know whether simply refusing to put up a border if the UK leaves the single market would work. We also do not know whether the erection of a border would lead to the return of violence, as some politicians in both sides of Ireland have predicted.

Word Watch

The Irish PM Leo Varadkar faces the prospect of a snap election as early as next month. This means that it would be electorally unwise of him to concede to too many British demands.
Open border
A year after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which came into effect in 1922 and led to the creation of the modern Irish state, the Common Travel Area was established between the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
Single market
An ambitious unifying project that, as well as eliminating tariffs and quotas on trade, includes the free movement of goods, services, capital and people between member states of the EU. You can be in the Single Market and not in the EU, as Norway is.
The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest pro-union party in Northern Ireland. The support of its ten MPs gives Theresa May a narrow majority in the House of Commons.
Shut its gob
Earlier this month the newspaper The Sun told Leo Varadkar: “Shut your gob and grow up” .

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