Katy Hayward is an associate sociology professor at Queen’s University Belfast. She is a fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice and a member of the Centre for International Borders Research and on the Steering Group of the Institute of Irish Studies.
If it weren’t for Northern Ireland – a region constituting 3 per cent of the U.K.’s population and 2 per cent of its GDP – the neat two-year timetable agreed on for the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU would likely have been adhered to.
A withdrawal agreement tying up the loose ends and providing the security of a transition period out of EU membership would have been signed off long ago. Parliamentarians would have known what to legislate for. Civil servants would have known what to prepare for. And businesses and citizens would have known what it all meant for them.
But, for all its small size, Northern Ireland is an extraordinarily complicated place – and a familiar spanner in the works when it comes to neat plans from the British government. Leaving the EU means leaving the legal framework and political environment that made the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement possible, and the wider peace process that it sustains. This is not an insurmountable problem, but it does mean that the new relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland and, in particular, the new status of the Irish border, would have to be handled with extreme care. Acknowledging this, both the U.K. and EU sought “flexible and imaginative solutions” toward keeping the Irish border as “frictionless and seamless” as it currently is, even after Brexit.
What they negotiated was a Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland that was to form a safety net for the region in the event that the future trade talks between the U.K. and EU were unable themselves to avoid a hard border or protect the 1998 Agreement. These arrangements, the so-called backstop, would involve compromise on both sides – the U.K. following the EU’s commercial policy to avoid customs controls around Northern Ireland, and the EU allowing part of a non-member-state free movement of goods (including agri-food) into its single market. The backstop was hard-won.
And it was quickly rejected by British MPs. They didn’t like the fact that Northern Ireland would be in different arrangements from the rest of the U.K. They hated the fact that the U.K. couldn’t simply walk away from it in future. They loathed that it would place restrictions on the independent trade policy that was a core purpose of Brexit in the first place.
When MPs voted down the withdrawal agreement in mid-January, they did so for wildly different reasons, reflecting the deep ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ divisions that still exist within parties in Westminster. But the one thing they could all agree on was that they did not like the backstop. And so, Theresa May was sent back to Brussels with the explicit mandate to “renegotiate” it.
But, amid the games in Westminster, what most pundits in Britain overlooked was that the backstop was actually something welcomed in Northern Ireland. In this divided region, with polarized politics exacerbated by Brexit, surveys consistently show that people in Northern Ireland want to avoid checks and controls on the land border with Ireland or the sea border with Britain. People are concerned that such border controls would not only bring barriers to trade and economic growth, they would also incentivize terrorist activity. If the backstop was an insurance policy against this happening in future, then it was to be welcomed.
And on this basis, something happened in Northern Ireland that has not occurred since the referendum on the peace agreement 21 years ago: business and civic leaders came into the public sphere to express their support for the backstop. They spoke first to local papers. Then they were on regional radio and TV. Then they were asked to speak to international media.
And, eventually, they came to be invited to London to appear on mainstream British broadcasting, too. They spoke with knowledge and passion about the risks to Northern Ireland consumers and businesses, were the region to have to manage with border checks and controls. In particular, they explained the purpose of the backstop and why it entailed the compromises it did. And, more often than not, they ended up talking about the peace process in Northern Ireland – how precious it is to all generations here and how fragile it remains. Throughout it all, they have had to withstand criticism and mockery from some local politicians and commentators.
The leadership shown by business and civic leaders has been so remarkable because it fills a huge gulf that currently exists in the region. A core achievement of the 1998 agreement – devolved government for Northern Ireland – has been missing for over two years because the two largest political parties have refused to share power. Aware of the sensitivities of the situation (and perhaps not wishing to take on the political burden of Northern Ireland), the British government has not introduced direct rule from Westminster, and so civil servants have been charged with effectively “keeping the lights on” here. This means that big decisions are not being made and that Northern Ireland is in the middle of a severe crisis of democratic deficit and oversight.
Unfortunately, the events of the past few days have only exacerbated this crisis. The rejection of the withdrawal agreement for the second time in the House of Commons Tuesday only increases the uncertainty about the process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Northern Ireland is facing perilous economic circumstances with no transition period, no safety net of a backstop and no political leadership.
This would be a crisis for even the most stable and secure of regions. In postconflict Northern Ireland, the lasting harm to arise from such political irresponsibility will be as lamentable as it is colossal.