Shout out to my friends and family in America who still think that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are all one country, and part of the UK. America has its own shitshow of problems, so it isn’t surprising that so many Americans have no idea what is going not with Ireland and Brexit. It’s okay. I’ll explain it in terms that can make this accessible to most anyone. Let’s start with the basics:
One Island, Two Countries
Ireland is a single island, but it is comprised of two separate countries: The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland is an independent sovereign country that gained its independence from Great Britain between 1916 and 1919. It is a member of the European Union (EU), and uses the Euro as its currency.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is Brexiting the European Union along with the rest of the UK, and uses the UK sterling currency (pounds).
How Ireland Split in Two
From 1801 to 1916, all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and subject to the laws and rule of the British. This was not a happy time for most of Ireland. There was massive exploitation, starvation, and a myriad of abuses on the part of Britain, not to mention the Great Irish Famine. For much of its union, the English ruling class looked down on the Irish as helpless children who couldn’t manage their own affairs, and treated them with contempt and neglect. To sum it up: The Brits were huge dicks.
A British political cartoon depicting Irish political activists, c.1860s
Fed up with British rule, portions of Ireland rose up against the Brits in the Irish War of Independence (1916-1921), during which more than 2,000 people died.
Out of the war came a compromise: Most of Ireland would form the Irish Free State, which morphed into the modern Republic of Ireland by 1937. Huzzah!
However, several northern counties in Ireland made the political choice (largely along religious lines, protestants being dominant in the north) to opt out of the Irish Free State and remain loyal subjects of the United Kingdom. They remain so to this day, and these counties make up Northern Ireland.
Accordingly, the dividing line between Ireland and Northern Ireland became an international border, impacting trade, customs, and security. It remained a fairly “soft” border, however, free of passport checks. And by 1992, the European “single market” system meant that goods checks were phased out as well.
Today, the Irish border is barely recognizable as an international crossing. Most likely you would only note it as a country road with a number of tractors scuttling down its length. Sort of like the border between Michigan and Ohio, except with fewer potholes.
Britain and Ireland: A Dormant Tension
Seriously, though, it is no secret that tensions have always been tight between the Republic of Ireland and the UK–with Northern Ireland figuratively and literally caught in the middle. From the 1970s to the 1990s, much of Ireland–particularly the north–suffered through “the Troubles”. It was a political and paramilitary conflict, primarily between Protestant pro-British Unionists (backed by British influence and resources) and Catholic Nationalists in favor of a single united Ireland. For over two decades riots, abductions, shootings, and bombings plagued the island. In all, over 3,500 people were killed.
The violence only (mostly) ceased once the “Good Friday Agreement” was signed in 1998. Bill Clinton. Tony Blair. Lots of Irish people. Good times.
One of the most key concessions in the Agreement was that Ireland has the right to be a single, unified nation–separate from Great Britain–just as soon as a majority of the Northern Irish population and Irish population wants Ireland to unite. Britain is bound under obligation to step aside should that ever happen. Bounnnd.
Brexit and the Irish Border Peril
It’s a terribly fragile peace along the Northern Irish border. And if that peace is spun sugar, a “no-deal” Brexit is the rain storm on the horizon.
Under a Boris Johnson-style “no-deal” Brexit, Britain defaults to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, which is a really hard landing. That means tariffs on goods and food, customs checks along the Irish border, and border infrastructure.
Imagine that lonely Irish border road with the tractors, and pedestrians, and people on their way to work. Now imagine British engineers and soldiers building checkpoint booths and camera towers all along the road. Trucks backed up for miles, commuters held up for hours. It’s a British hard border right in the middle of Ireland.
It wouldn’t just be invasive and disruptive, it would be reminiscent of the Troubles. And if you don’t think the bombings couldn’t start again, you haven’t been watching the news. A couple have already been planted as warnings. Thankfully no one’s been hurt yet–to the best of my knowledge.
But What About That Backstop Thingy?
It was a nice idea. The “backstop” was supposed to be part of the official Brexit agreement that forced Britain to promise it wouldn’t put up a hard border in Ireland– even if the full Brexit negotiations (yes, those haven’t even started yet, we’re only at the preliminaries) couldn’t come up with an answer to the border problem. The EU just wanted the promise. No border. Put the border in the Irish Sea. Just not on land.
But then Britain got its panties in a bunch because there wasn’t a specified time limit on the backstop promise, and it meant they could be linked for WHO KNOWS HOW LONG to Ireland. And what’s this about the Irish Sea when Northern Ireland is part of their own damn kingdom?! That’s when the hardliners went crazy, lit their hair on fire, and collectively ensured that there would, in fact, be a hard border by refusing a deal with the backstop.
It’s like when my husband says to me, “Do you promise you’ll never get a tattoo of a chinchilla on your ass?” And I’m all like, “Oh yeah, don’t worry, I have zero plans to ink a chinchilla down there”. And he’s all, “So does that mean you promise?”. And I reply, “ummmm….”, then I run screaming out of the room, drink a bottle of gin and draw a chinchilla on my own ass with a ballpoint pen.
Or maybe it’s nothing like that.
So if There’s No Backstop, What is Boris Going to do?
Despite all of Boris Johnson’s calls for a no-deal Brexit, he’s actually been working awfully hard on a yes-deal.
As of October, 2019, here is what BoJo has in mind as a Brexit compromise: Northern Ireland stays in the EU customs union, but still gets all the advantages (or disadvantages) of trade negotiations Britain secures in the future. Northern Ireland will have dual membership, in effect.
And the border impact? No hard borders or customs checks along the Irish border. Huzzah! Customs checkpoints and tariffs will be implemented in the Irish Sea.
Who is the DUP and Why Do They Want to Tank This Deal?
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is a political party in Northern Ireland that is fiercely loyal to the United Kingdom. And, lucky for them, they also hold some key votes in BoJo’s Conservative Party. In fact, even though the DUP is an itty bitty group with an itty bitty constituency, BoJo’s party wouldn’t be in power without them. So they have BoJo by the short and curlies (the same was true with Theresa May, to be fair).
DUP leaders flank Boris Johnson
And to no one’s surprise, they hate having the customs checkpoints between them and Britain since that means they’re being split up from mama and treated differently from all their siblings. Northern Ireland businesses will even have to pay tariffs on goods coming from Mother Britain–though BoJo swears they can set up a system to offer rebates on those tariffs.
Even I see how that seems a little insulting to their identity and loyalty. Sometimes pragmatism has to take a backseat to pride, though.
(political cartoon credit: Ingram Pinn)
Why This Matters
As much as the DUP and Northern Irish have a right to complain that they’re being separated from the Mother Ship, economically speaking, there’s something even bigger at stake.
Ireland has been snail-crawling toward eventual, peaceful unification of the whole island. One Ireland.
Now, even if a hard border doesn’t go up, there are still questions about Britain and the Good Friday agreement. Will Britain still honor the Good Friday agreement binnnnnnding them to release Northern Ireland if that’s what the population wants? Or will Brexit void that deal?
And if Britain can’t find a way to gracefully Brexit, the specter of razor wire and attack dogs and border gulags (whatever those are, just go with it) is threatening a fragile peace.
Here is to hoping that cooler heads prevail and compromise overcomes pride.
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