The Irish Question … again

For followers of Rugby Union, the weekend just past saw the start of the annual Six Nations tournament.  Unusually, what promised to be the banner game of the tournament took place in the very first round, with champions Ireland hosting their main challenger England.  And, to the surprise of many, it was the English who triumphed, winning 32-20 on a cold but bright day in Dublin.

Westminster politicians may well draw more than sporting comfort from this, and hope for a similar surprise when Mrs May once more goes into battle with her EU counterparts over the vexed issue of the Irish backstop – that is, the arrangements to preserve free trade across the Irish border in the absence of any more comprehensive deal.  For it is now clear that it is the issue of the Irish border, and only this, that stands between Mrs May and an agreement on the EU deal.

It would be understandable if our readers’ eyes glazed over somewhat at the latest week in Westminster.  Yet again the House of Commons met to consider Mrs May’s deal.  Yet again the indefatigable prime minister – her past defeats and humiliations notwithstanding – stood at the despatch box urging the House to bend to her will, urging her party to rally behind her.  Seven separate votes on various motions and amendments were held, and even experienced commentators struggled to perceive the will of the House from the ensuing mixed messages.

But one thing did become clear.  The majority of the House (and the great majority of the Tory party) agree on all the important aspects of Mrs May’s deal except the Irish backstop.  And were Mrs May to succeed in agreeing different and less harsh terms on the backstop with the EU, then the House would almost certainly approve her deal.

And so Mrs May returns again to Brussels, having united her party and secured the agreement of the House to one more try to solve the issue.  At the very least one has to admire her resilience and sense of duty.

Normally the EU would pay scant attention to this, even if Mrs May had the support of all 650 MPs behind her.  They are used to supplicant heads of government coming to Brussels with the full support of their legislature, and they have almost never changed their mind.  As Mrs Merkel observed during the Greek Crisis a few years ago, “we also have parliaments behind us and populations to be accountable to”.

On the Irish backstop, their position is starkly clear.  Their stated line, repeated again and again, is that the deal on the table is the only possible deal and will not be materially altered.  And both politics and economics are on their side:  much as many in Westminster are reluctant to admit it, Northern Ireland really is different from the rest of the UK, and is already subject to unique political and economic regimes.

Politically, the Good Friday Agreement gave the Dublin government a role in the governance of Northern Ireland.  Not only does Dublin have the right to be consulted on the operation of the devolved government at Stormont, but under the aegis of the North/South Ministerial Council (made up of ministers from the Irish and Stormont governments) various aspects of the administration of the whole island of Ireland – not just Northern Ireland but the whole island – are treated jointly.  There is a duty “to develop consultation, co-operation and action” in a number of areas of mutual interest, some where the two governments form common policies but implement them separately in each jurisdiction, and some where they go further and develop common policies that are implemented through shared all-Ireland institutions[1].

This is a level of political integration between two sovereign states, and a level of involvement of one state, Ireland, in the internal governance of another, the United Kingdom, that is without parallel.  And it has in turn spawned a social and economic blurring of the border too.  Socially, people born in Northern Ireland can choose their citizenship:  British, or Irish, or indeed both.  The Irish tricolour flag is permitted and flown in Northern Ireland in a way that is most unusual for the flag of a foreign state.

The economic inter-dependency between the two communities is also unlike that between any other two states.  In many areas, not only is economic activity blind to the border, but the regulations it operates under are set by all-Ireland bodies (and in agriculture at least, these regulations are often materially different from those in the rest of the UK).

Not for nothing does the Irish Question defy solution by reference to elsewhere in the world, and not for nothing does Brussels wearily observe to Westminster that there really is no half-way house between maintaining full integration between the two parts of Ireland and a hard border – which would mean the UK abandoning the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty.

And yet.  Nothing in Ireland is ever quite as simple as it seems.  Much of the tone of the EU’s approach to the Irish border has been set by the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who has adopted a more strident and less conciliatory approach than his predecessor Enda Kenny.

Varadkar is an interesting and insecure Taoiseach, running a minority government dependent both on the support of a number of independents and on the abstention of the main opposition party on significant issues.  He has assessed that a hard line on the Irish border issue is the best way to secure this support:  it plays to the sensible part of Irish society in that it protects the all-Ireland economy and it plays to the Nationalist part of Irish society in that it bashes the Brits.  And he has been very skilful in keeping the EU onside, partly playing on the sense that Ireland is owed a favour for bailing out the German banking system in 2008.

But he needs to be careful not to overplay his hand, as the closer the UK gets to leaving with no deal, the closer he gets to losing everything.  And one thing is clear:  under no deal, the Irish economy is likely to suffer badly, and Dublin will not have many tools to ameliorate the effects.  For whereas the UK government will do whatever it takes to keep Northern Ireland economically afloat, Dublin will be more constrained.

If there is no deal, London will not be bound by any deal with the EU restricting its ability to provide state aid to Northern Irish businesses, and will be tempted to at least turn a blind or sympathetic eye to unregulated cross border operations to maintain activity in the Province.  At the very least London would not feel under any duty to apply checks on cross-border trade very assiduously.

But for Ireland, the EU will make no such concessions.  The rules will be applied to the letter, because that is the only modus operandi that Brussels has and because they have 26 other nations to take into account.  So, state aid for Irish businesses affected by no deal will be illegal, the border will have to be policed, and if Ireland refuses or is unable to check intra-Ireland trade to Brussels’ satisfaction then they will be considered an unsafe customs area and will face sanctions on their goods going to the mainland EU.

The French have already said that if there is no deal and if the Irish border is not totally rigorously policed, then they will apply the same sanctions against Irish agricultural exports as they will against UK ones.  And deciding which components of any industrial goods exported from Ireland actually come from Northern Ireland will be very far from easy.

Sensible people in both Dublin and Brussels know all this.  But the clock has not yet ticked close enough to midnight – any more than it has at Westminster – for sensible people to make their voices heard.

The hope in Westminster is that as 29 March approaches, the voices of reason and compromise will become louder and more insistent.  Finding last minute compromises is very much part of the EU’s negotiation style, and since the outcome of a hard border is in nobody’s interest, Mrs May’s promise that “given the right face-saver, I can get my deal through” is not entirely without value.

Which is where we return to the Rugby game played in Dublin last Saturday.  In one sense it displayed the ultimate in fudges and bespoke solutions, and was living proof that where there is a will, diplomats can often find a way.   For neither side represented a true sovereign state.  One of the sides, England, does not represent a sovereign nation and yet is treated as a national side by the Rugby authorities, and the other, Ireland, draws on rugby players from both halves of the island.

If the Rugby authorities – not usually known for their flexibility and imagination – can solve the Irish Question to all sides’ satisfaction, perhaps it is not totally unreasonable to hope that between them, Dublin, London and Brussels can too.

But it would we think be wrong to expect any breakthrough until much closer to the end of March.  So for Mrs May, the routine of rejection and frustration looks set to continue for a while yet.  And for the rest of us, a resolution to the Irish Question, and thus to the whole question of the UK’s departure from the EU, remains as far off as ever.


[1]              The full text of the Good Friday Agreement can be accessed via  It is, in passing, just 32 pages long, compared to the 585 (sic) pages of the UK Withdrawal Agreement!