There is no denying that Brexit has been a mess. Whilst we’ve been unravelling decades of intertwined politics with all the subtelty of an acrimonious divorce, there is still one major issue that requires a solution; the political minefield that is Northern Ireland.
The Irish border situation was originally one of the first issues listed in regards to Brexit, and yet it is still unresolved mere months before the deadline. Theresa May, as every other politician before her, has other priorities that they’d much rather be focusing on. Northern Ireland is, like seemingly always, an afterthought. Politicians like to pretend it doesn’t exist, as the situation is too complex for a simple solution. Even the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 only came about as a result of years of bloodshed and a string of unsuccessful attempts at policy.
The history of the Irish border has been long and bloody. Violence between the IRA and the British Army led to the border ‘hardening’, but ultimately this did nothing to stop the violence, and eventually cost the lives of thousands of innocent citizens caught in the crossfire. Politicians struggled to come up with a solution then, as they do now.
A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic may only worsen the tensions that have been simmering, and will cause countless problems for the people that live there. A sense of cross-border cooperation comes along with an open border: thousands of people cross this border daily, sometimes multiple times, to work in schools, offices and hospitals. A hard border would put a sudden and abrupt stop to this. Tensions meanwhile are already rising again, as seen by the sporadic violence in and around Belfast during the Orange Order parades, a traditionally Protestant celebration. Any policy that could spark a repeat of the Troubles should not even be considered.
Placing a hard border in the Irish Sea is a second option. This would allow Northern Ireland to remain within EU trade and avoid many changes at the border, but despite this fact this idea hasn’t found favour. This is mainly because the idea of treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK is a sensitive subject, and so having them function more like the Republic of Ireland rather than a British country would cause issues in both Belfast and London.
Staying in the EU customs union and the single market, in order to avoid the otherwise inevitable customs border controls and lack of free movement between borders, could potentially be the best solution for both parts of Ireland. Leaving these institutions, however, is one of the most integral parts of Brexit, especially to May, making it an extremely unlikely solution for the Northern Irish, in spite of all the potential benefits. These are instead ignored so that Westminster can pursue its rigid policy.
One of the only solutions that is in line with the Good Friday Agreement is reunification. This could still cause divides, as only the nationalists would see it as a victory. While it is no means a perfect solution, it would stop the isolation of Northern Ireland if the only option left was to impose a hard border. It could finally give them a say in European politics, a voice that has never really been heard.
We’re running out of time to make the decision. It would be all too easy for government to put the issue off until the second set of talks, and keep prolonging the difficult decision until their only option is to choose a solution that could endanger Irish relations. And let’s face it, with the way that Northern Ireland is constantly underrepresented and unheard in UK politics, it wouldn’t be the most surprising part of Brexit. It would just be history repeating itself, as British actions would once again damage Ireland.