Irish backstop: PM risks future of the Union

Irish backstop: PM risks future of the Union

New assurances regarding the backstop will likely secure Brexit, but it would also inflame nationalist passions in Ireland which would threaten the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.

Longtime Liberal leader William Gladstone once remarked that the so-called ‘Irish question’ was “the long vexed and troubled relations between Great Britain and Ireland which exhibit to us the one and only conspicuous failure of the political genius of our race.” Although couched in the superiority complex that was inherent to the British mentality of the age, this statement expresses one universal truth about British politics: Ireland is an integral part, and while it is ever difficult to settle, it is also impossible to ignore—a fact clearly on display again with impassioned disagreements over the backstop.

The Irish border backstop

The present withdrawal agreement stipulates that Northern Ireland would remain inside the EU customs union and single market after the UK’s formal withdrawal in March—an arrangement known as the backstop. This is meant to preserve both communal relations between Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist communities and the extensive economic ties the country shares with the Republic of Ireland. The arrangement is supported by officials in Dublin and Brussels, but it is vehemently opposed by unionists and hardline Conservatives who view the backstop as a fundamental threat to the union linking Northern Ireland to Great Britain. It was cited repeatedly as the primary reason they voted against the deal in Parliament.

Facing overwhelming opposition from all sides in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May recently announced that she would return to Brussels to seek assurances that the backstop would be temporary. The EU has already indicated several times that it will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, but this attempt by May is apparently an effort to out-manoeuvre her rivals in Parliament and forge a withdrawal agreement that can command majority support in the House of Commons.

Irish nationalism and Brexit

Securing any official concessions from Brussels will prove exceptionally difficult, but if the prime minister’s bid is successful, it would almost certainly be enough to push her deal through Parliament. Ironically, however, it would ultimately undermine the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom because it would ignite nationalist passions across Ireland which would, in turn, revive the debate on whether Northern Ireland should remain a member of the UK or unify with the Republic.

Sinn Fein—Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party and the Republic’s third largest—has advocated for the total political and economic independence of Ireland since the late 1910s. Although the party’s positions were marginal for most of the twentieth century, Brexit presents a unique opportunity because a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted Remain, meaning unification with the Republic would retain the country’s EU membership in line with the will of a majority of its people. Backed by in-kind guarantees from the EU, Sinn Fein has made this argument a core part of its political program since the Brexit referendum.

Furthermore, Fianna Fail—currently Ireland’s second largest party—recently announced that it would begin a process that will almost certainly lead to a merger with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Northern Ireland’s second largest nationalist party. While it is presently unclear what impact Fianna Fail might have on politics north of the border, it does mean that two of Ireland’s three largest parties—Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail—now have a legitimate political stake in Northern Ireland, and their growing influence in each other’s political systems will give strength to the nationalist interpretation of Brexit, placing greater pressure on London to deliver unity for the next generation.

Will nationalism undermine the Union?

This is all part of the emergence of a ‘new nationalism’ in Ireland in which unity is no longer argued in terms of heritage and national pride alone, but rather in the more sophisticated twenty-first-century language of economics and integration. This has already proven more attractive to those who care little for the traditional ‘nationalism v. unionism’ paradigm and seek primarily to secure their maximum economic benefit. Those individuals are far more likely to support Irish unity if they believe that maintaining the country’s EU membership better guarantees their long-term prosperity.

Of course, a Conservative-led British government will work to contain the threat posed by Irish nationalism, but the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that Parliament must affect unity if that is the genuinely expressed wish of a majority of the people of both parts of Ireland. Although Theresa May can secure some version of Brexit if she garners additional assurances from the EU regarding the backstop, she risks mobilizing powerful entities across the entire island of Ireland which would exploit the strength of the economic benefit of unity argument to make a concerted effort to sever Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

Categories: Europe, Politics
Tags: Brexit, Europe, Ireland, UK

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