The European Union has offered U.K. lawmakers more time to agree on a Brexit plan. Why is the extension needed?
However, a key reason for the failure – and the one that hasn’t received a lot of attention – is the so-called “Irish backstop.”
The EU requested, and May agreed, to the backstop in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement, which relies on both countries being in the EU. A hard border would require checkpoints and other infrastructure that could become physical and symbolic flashpoints for Nationalists who support a united Ireland.
A new analysis that we have just completed shows that Parliament’s objection to the backstop amounts to an implicit rejection of the Good Friday Agreement, the agreement that brought the end of armed conflict in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the reasons Parliament objects to the backstop are exactly what made the peace agreement work.
How does the Good Friday Agreement factor in?
The Good Friday Agreement, signed 21 years ago, didn’t solve the geopolitical dispute at the heart of the decadeslong conflict in Northern Ireland: Should Northern Ireland be a part of the U.K. or the Republic of Ireland?
Instead, the agreement found a creative way around the issue by allowing a form of co-sovereignty. The Good Friday Agreement allowed people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, British, or both, and to hold a passport from either or both countries.
As a consequence, people and goods currently cross the border without stopping.
As Jonathan Powell, one of the key negotiators for the British in the peace talks, argued, having a soft border “meant the issue of identity was really removed from the table.” This was no small feat in a place where one’s identity as Irish/Nationalist or British/Unionist historically shaped where you lived, who you married and where you worked.
But then Brexit came along and challenged core elements of the Good Friday Agreement.
When the U.K. eventually leaves the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will require a border apparatus to check passports of visitors, track the origin and quality of goods, and collect appropriate taxes or customs.
Recreating border infrastructure risks undermining the extensive economic integration that has developed between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It also upends the ability of Nationalist citizens of Northern Ireland – people who advocate for a united and independent Irish state – to see themselves as Irish while living in Northern Ireland. The British government has already announced, for example, that after Brexit it will no longer treat people born in Northern Ireland who claim Irish citizenship the same as citizens of the Irish Republic when it comes to certain rights and benefits that are guaranteed to EU subjects living in the U.K.
For the Nationalist population in Northern Ireland, this means a key provision in the Good Friday Agreement – the right to choose your identity and to carry dual passports – no longer applies.
Why was the backstop controversial?
As scholars of Northern Ireland, we are keenly interested in how Brexit will affect the peace. We just returned from the annual International Studies Association meeting where we presented a paper on how members of Parliament were discussing Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland.
In particular, we focused on three debates held over eight days between December and March in the House of Commons on the prime minister’s withdrawal deal.
Using the Hansard record of parliamentary debates, we cataloged the objections members of Parliament made about May’s Brexit deal. While the primary objection was trade, the backstop received the second highest number of objections.
Theresa May staunchly supported the backstop in all three parliamentary debates. Her grounds were that it would maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the union by preserving its peace deal and providing for the interests of the majority of its residents who do not want a hard border.
She referred to the provision of the Good Friday Agreement that allows the people of Northern Ireland to choose to leave the union and form a united Ireland.
If “this House cares about preserving our Union, it must listen to those people, because our Union will only endure with their consent,” May said.