Over the next week, there will be a crunch decision about moving EU-UK talks to what our future trade relationship should be. The Government and EU appear to have come to a critical understanding about the continuing financial settlement between the UK and the European Union. While the Cabinet have broadly supported the proposal, some MPs have been less supportive. Yet such is the complexity of Brexit, mutinous comments on money are not Theresa May’s most immediate headache. The issue that might block progress is one that has dogged British politics for more than a century and a half – the UK/Ireland relationship.
The problem appears to be that Ireland and Brexit is a question of black and white at first sight, rather than, for example, financial shades of grey. If the mainland of Great British and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and the Irish Republic and wider EU are all not to have a ‘hard’ border, then how can the UK leave the EU, particularly the customs union and single market, and both sides put in place the necessary checks to make this work? It is no coincidence that both countries joined simultaneously.
The Conservative and Unionist Party’s troubles (to give it its full name) over the border are compounded by the fact they need DUP votes to maintain power – a unionist party deeply anxious not to let Brexit be used to weaken the links between Northern Ireland and the British mainland or imply greater unity between the two parts of Ireland. Meanwhile, some in Dublin play with fire as they somehow hope that Brexit, which deprives them of a key ally, can be stopped, or, more realistically, leave the UK in the single market and customs union but out of the political EU institutions. In this context, former Irish PM Bertie Ahern’s comments that ‘technology and a blind eye’ might be the best solution were a welcome breath of pragmatic fresh air.
The most likely outcome in the short term seems to be a fudge, with Ireland asked to allow wider talks to proceed by the remainder of the EU. With no one wanting Northern Ireland to slide back toward the Troubles, ultimately Ireland is unlikely to force a break down in talks. But this will not be the last we hear of a relationship that Gladstone, Prime Minister 150 years ago, termed ‘the Irish Question’, and if anyone has any solutions, I suspect that DExEU would love to hear them…