There has always been historic belligerence between The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. After the Anglo-Irish War of 1921 between the two, it led to the creation of a truncated albeit free Ireland. After the truce and the treaty that followed it, Northern Ireland was separated from the Republic of Ireland and was thus made a part of the United Kingdom. It was given separate legislation and government and thus made as a semi-autonomous province. This was a mere compromise for the Irish, primarily for the Nationalists living in Northern Ireland as they were made to part from fellow Irish Nationalists. Also, they found this arrangement bereft legitimacy. Thus there always existed an unease between the two states over Northern Island.
A few decades later conflict erupted in Northern Ireland popularly known as “Troubles”. This was an ethno-nationalist conflict fuelled by historical events. The Nationalists(mostly Protestants) wanted integration of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland as against the Unionists(mostly Catholics) who wanted to remain in the UK. This cataclysm started in the 1960ʼs which killed nearly 3500 people lasted for three decades and finally, the antipathy ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement was a major political development in the Northern Island peace process. It provided a framework of how Northern Ireland should be governed in the future. The agreement accepted the right of the people to be identified as Irish or British or both. This meant that the Unionists can align with the Republic or Ireland while the Nationalists can continue to be identified with the UK. Also, the Republic of Ireland amended its constitution and acknowledged Northern Ireland as a Sovereign British territory and the agreement gave people a choice to join Ireland, should they wish to do so. The hard border between the two was subsequently removed including all the bulwarks and military outposts. This gave people an intrinsic feeling of unity across the border. The agreement was then countenanced by the people in a referendum in the following year.
This unique power-sharing arrangement has bought peace for the last two decades. However, the issue has again come to the limelight with Brexit. Brexit, a portmanteau of British and exit means the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union following a referendum in June 2016. However, the conundrum regarding Brexit is not the decision but its implementation. The deadly Brexit has since, walloped two “Brit” PMʼs and bought Boris Johnson to the office. A deal is yet to be negotiated about various EU-UK relations. Boris has now promised to deliver a “do or die” Brexit till 31st October.
Let us now link them both for a better understanding. The problem with Brexit is regarding the Single market and Customʼs Union. Former UK PM Theresa May made it clear that the UK won’t be a part of the two. This meant there wonʼt be free trade between the EU and UK post-Brexit and tariffs and restrictions shall be imposed on Goods and Services entering the UK. In other words, the UK seeks to exercise control over its own borders. Similarly, in light of the Immigrant crisis, the movement of people shall also become arduous. However, all this requires a hard border. The only land border UK has with the EU is along Northern Ireland as the Republic of Ireland is a part of the EU. However, doing that will be tantamount to abandoning the Good Friday and going a century back in the past. However, there is a clear consensus in Westminster of not scoffing the historical developments. This is indeed a political dilemma.
A hard Brexit requires restrictions per se. It means withdrawal from the EU with few or no deals which will then lead to trade being conducted under WTO rules. But that compromises the promise for no hard borders in Belfast. Without a bulwark framework, it is virtually impossible to restrict movement from the EU and having a hard border might go against the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland as it would make it difficult for them to have ties with Belfast. A softer Brexit would fall for Single Market and have some free movement of people but that would surely be a myopic misconstrue of the Brit-Spirit highlighted in the Referendum of 2016 and precisely thatʼs why it is a non-negotiable for Brexiters. The other option available with the UK is that it might control its maritime borders and leave Northern Ireland(its only hard border) as a part of the Customs Union. But that would be perfidy towards the Nationalists in the UK. It would also be a mockery of British Sovereignty.
What we must not forget it that the current government-run by Boris Johnson is a minority government and it is due to the support of the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), a pro-UK party that is against a United Ireland. However, it is against the hard border with Ireland. Thus it also curbs the governmentʼs right to take a decision regarding Northern Ireland. Albeit the DUP is a Eurosceptic party and favors Brexit, 56% of the Northern Ireland people wanted to stay in the EU. All this makes UK land in quite a predicament.
To make matters worse for the Northern Ireland, there is a backstop arrangement which states that in case of a no-deal Brexit Northern Ireland will be a part of a single market to prevent any hard border with the Republic of Ireland, until such time as an alternative arrangement including a technical or other solution can be delivered. Although this arrangement is supported by the Nationalists, the DUP and other unionists oppose it. So technically Britain is unable to find a middle ground to place itself.
Apart from all this, we must not ignore that there is a growing United Ireland sentiment in Northern Ireland. Reportedly 28% of people who earlier voted for Brexit now vote for a United Ireland. Over time the EU has only helped in easing the sentiments and relations in the Island with its free movement and single market thus connecting various people across borders. With EUʼs departure what will arrive is still uncertain. However, it might also lead to Northern Irelandʼs departure.