By Campaign Agent Nick Jones (@nickmjones94)
These were the words of Theresa May on Radio 4's 'Today Programme' on April 19, 2017, a day after she stunned the nation by calling a surprise general election to take place in June. The message was crystal clear: vote for the Conservative Party, and Brexit talks will be plain sailing.
On Monday, after lunching with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in a key set of talks designed to finally bring an end to phase one of the ongoing negotiations, May could have been forgiven for looking back to April with a twinge of confusion and perhaps even regret. As her statement read this time, no deal had been reached. There remained, she said, “disagreements” on a “couple of issues”.
It soon became clear that the issues in question were found neither in Westminster nor in Brussels, but in Belfast. And, ironically, it was her kingmakers, the Democratic Unionist Party, who were dissatisfied. The tiny Northern Irish party, whose 10 MPs had allowed her to stumble over the finish line at the snap election, had prevented the deal from going through. Categorically rejecting the prospect of political alignment with the Republic of Ireland over mainland Britain, DUP leader Arlene Foster stunned not just May - but the whole of Europe - by vetoing the deal and sending everyone back to the drawing board.
Unionism over the customs union
As Theresa May headed to Brussels, there was optimism on both sides that the question of the Irish border would finally be wrapped up. For months, the issue of how the current, virtually non-existent border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could stay in place after Brexit has loomed ominously over the ongoing talks. Since it will become the UK’s only land border with the European Union, it would surely have to be regulated. Yet, given the recent, complex, and violent history between Irish nationalists and unionists, which was only delicately resolved by the Good friday Agreement in 1998, the thought of re-establishing a physical border with customs checks is unthinkable to pretty much everyone.
Unsurprisingly, given its potential impact on his country, the Irish Taoiseach (head of the Irish government) Leo Varadkar has been particularly outspoken on the matter. With support from Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, Varadkar has threatened to veto any deal that doesn’t guarantee a “soft border”, whilst suggesting that Britain should remain in the Customs Union in order to do so. For Remainers in Westminster, staying in the Customs Union is the next best thing to retaining EU membership. For Leavers - including those pulling the strings - it’s an absolute no-no.
If marrying these two seemingly irreconcilable demands - the need to avoid a hard border and the impossibility of leaving the Customs Union - was proving impossible, then May thought she’d hatched the perfect plan by the time she sat down for lunch in Brussels. Northern Ireland, it was decided, would retain “regulatory alignment” with the EU and, crucially, the Republic of Ireland. A piece of deliberately vague jargon designed to remain as open to interpretation as possible, “regulatory alignment” simply means that Northern Ireland - separately from the rest of the UK - would carry on as normal after Brexit. In other words: to keep goods, services and people flowing seamlessly between Ireland and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland would effectively stay within the Customs Union, whilst England, Scotland and Wales would leave.
For Theresa May’s government, this was a fair and necessary trade-off, one that was greeted warmly in both Ireland and Brussels: an end to the interminable border question was finally in sight.
Brexit, though, never has been a smooth affair, and that wasn’t going to change now. Learning of the deal at Stormont, Arlene Foster immediately issued a statement outlining her party’s absolute opposition to this “shock” deal which proposed to treat Northern Ireland differently from the UK, in line with the Republic. A staunchly unionist party, the DUP is both Eurosceptic and suspicious of any attempt to distance Belfast politically from the United Kingdom. Suddenly landed in power, the party is now able to pursue both these interests with maximum impact.
The result is that negotiations must resume all over again with the evidently complex Irish border question still unresolved. Finding a solution which satisfies the once-fragile peace process will be one of May’s chief priorities. As the prime minister embarks on another round of thinking and negotiating, she’ll no longer be looking back to April 2017. She’ll be looking forward, as the clocks ticks on towards 11pm on March 29, 2019.
Sources and Further Reading
- Rowena Mason, Election will give UK 'strongest hand' in Brexit talks, says Theresa May, The Guardian, 19 April 2017
- Daniel Boffey, Jennifer Rankin, and Anushka Asthana, May's weakness exposed as DUP derails Brexit progress, The Guardian, 5 December 2017
- Katya Adler, Brussels 'unusually optimistic' ahead of May visit, BBC, 4 December 2017
- The Troubles, Wikipedia, Accessed December 2017
- Guinevere Poncia, Brexit and the Irish Border, Put Simply, TalkPolitics, 1 July 2017
- Ellen Coyne, Tusk vows Irish border veto, The Times, 2 December 2017
- Jacob Rees-Mogg: We’ve got to be out of the customs union, if we stay in we don’t get the benefits of leaving the EU, Leave Means Leave (YouTube), 22 June 2017
- George Parker, Alex Barker, and Mure Dickie, Alignment question at heart of Britain’s Brexit dilemma, The FT, 4 December 2017
- Emergency Brexitcast: What the hell is going on? PS, would you like a biscuit?, BBC Radio 5 Live (Podcast), 4 December 2017
- Arlene Foster: Brexit deal paper was a 'big shock' for DUP, BBC, 5 December 2017
- Tom Powell, Brexit date and time to be enshrined in law as Theresa May warns MPs not to try derailing process, London Evening Standard, 10 November 2017
Image: DUP Photos @Flickr