It has now been over three years since British citizens voted to leave the EU. Yet, a rift within the government remains, that has stunted much of its progress towards exiting the EU. With the recent victory of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson has been able to overcome this divide and finally pass a Brexit deal through the Conservative majority Parliament.

One issue that has proven, and remains, particularly divisive is the Irish border. An exit from the EU would imply the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which has the potential to reignite the recent past conflicts between the two states. Therefore, the government has been attempting to formulate a Brexit deal that avoids a hard border. This has been relatively unsuccessful thus far; former Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal ultimately failed to pass as a result of her proposal for the Irish border. Johnson, however, appears to have subverted the issues May faced, and successfully passed his Brexit deal through parliament on 20 December 2019, setting up the UK to leave the European Union on 31 January 2020.

The Irish Conflict: The Troubles

The status of Northern Ireland within the UK has a history of conflict since its creation in 1921. Prior to its separation from the Republic of Ireland, the British had ruled over the formerly united state, adopting policies that favoured Protestants over the Catholics. This exacerbated a divide between the two groups with unionist Protestants desiring to remain in the UK, whilst republican Catholics called for a united and independent Ireland. As a solution, the state was partitioned into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Whilst the former remained predominantly Catholic, independent from the UK, the latter maintained a Protestant majority under British rule. 

Yet, this partition did not resolve the conflict but, instead, culminated into decades of violence and unrest between the two camps, known as The Troubles – a conflict between Catholics, supported by the Catholic paramilitary group the Irish Republic Army (IRA), and Protestants, backed by British troops. Both sides employed aggressive tactics, such as sensational bombings, sniper attacks and roadblocks, resulting in the death of more than 3,500 individuals. 

In 1998, the violence came to an end. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland claimed a ceasefire and signed the Good Friday Agreement, which set forth a power-sharing arrangement that ensured no hard border between the two states. Instead, a soft border was put in place that has no military presence or checkpoints when crossing the state. Since then, relations between the two countries have been relatively peaceful.

How Brexit impacts the Irish Conflict

Maintaining the soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has therefore been a vital aspect of the Brexit negotiations. Both May and Johnson have recognised this and have attempted to formulate a deal that avoids a hard border. Yet, this has remained challenging given that Parliament, prior to the recent election, did not consist of a Conservative majority. Instead, to pass legislation through Parliament, the Party was reliant on the support of the Northern Irish unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with whom they made an agreement after the 2017 general election to gain a majority. Appeasing the DUP, whilst avoiding another Irish Conflict and maintaining the support from more moderate members of Parliament, proved an impossible challenge for both May and Johnson.

During her time as Prime Minister, May proposed a ‘backstop’, a guarantee that no hard border would be put in place even if a formal deal had not been agreed upon at the end of the transition period. This meant that the entire UK would have remained in the customs union, with Northern Ireland having a slightly closer alignment with EU rules and regulations. The deal, however, was highly unpopular within Parliament. Hardcore Brexiteers, who desire a clean break from the EU, argued that this was going against the essence of Brexit. The DUP, too, was highly critical. Party leader Arlene Foster voiced that a backstop means that Northern Ireland is treated different from the rest of the UK as it “bring[s] about customs [checks] between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that is unconstitutional and undemocratic.” Remainers were equally unsatisfied, arguing that it was proof that “Brexit is incompatible with keeping the Irish border open.”

Johnson’s Deal: A Modified Proposition

Given the failure of May’s plan, Johnson attempted to fashion a new plan vis-a-vis the Irish issue. Instead of the infamous ‘backstop’ that ultimately caused May’s deal to fail, Johnson offered a modified proposition. First, Northern Ireland will remain in the UK’s customs territory and benefit from its independent trade policy; however, it will be managed as an entry point into the European single market. This means that UK tariffs apply to products entering the country from outside the EU if they did not enter the single market. If they do enter the single market, EU tariffs apply. Second, Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the Single Market regulations on goods. However, the checks and procedures will not take place at the border, but rather at the ports and airports in Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border. As a result, UK goods, too, may require checking when entering Northern Ireland. Third, the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont has been granted a mechanism that allows it to vote by a simple majority on whether to continue applying these arrangements after the transition period. However, yet again, the deal received little support amongst Parliamentarians. The DUP have dubbed the deal as ‘the Betrayal Act’, given that Northern Ireland will be treated differently from counterparts. The Labour Party too have voiced their disapproval as leader Jeremy Corbyn states that it would not only damage Northern Ireland’s economy but “would undermine the Good Friday agreement.” 

Given the lack of support amongst non-Conservative parliamentarians, Johnson changed his strategy. Instead of attempting to appease the DUP, the Prime Minister decided to call a general election in the hopes that this will cease his dependence on the DUP and gain him a majority in Parliament, allowing him to pass the deal when the Parliamentary vote is held. It appears that his tactic has worked well so far; the recent elections witnessed the Conservatives win an astounding majority and the subsequent vote resulted in the passage of the Brexit deal. 

What Now?

However, regardless of this deal, the future of Northern Ireland remains uncertain. The idea of Brexit has already increased tensions on the island of Ireland as “ghosts of identity are being stirred again in a once deeply troubled land.” In April 2019, Lyra McKee was shot dead whilst reporting on a riot following police raids, for which the resurrected IRA, in favour of Irish independence and unity, have claimed responsibility. Further, bomb detonations have been on the rise once again. Amidst the heightened unrest, talk of a united Ireland has also re-emerged. Colin Harvey, a law professor at Queen’s University (Belfast), stated that the issue has “gone from the margins to the mainstream very, very rapidly as a result of Brexit.” Whilst vehement opposition still remains amongst British loyalists, Catholics are increasingly becoming a majority in Northern Ireland and the 56 percent of individuals in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU are dissatisfied with their future outside the EU. 

Although a united Ireland is unlikely to happen in the near future, it is evident that nothing remains off the table for Northern Ireland amidst the chaos. Brexit has evidently engendered significant instability for the state, which Johnson’s deal may not be able to repair. Although it avoids a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, this by no means implies that conflict is off the table. The focus on “getting Brexit done” as opposed to the quality and sustainability of the deal may leave Northern Ireland merely as ‘collateral damage’. Only time will tell.