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The Brexit Deal Would Resolve the Irish Border Issue – But No Deal is Still a Possibility!

Upcoming Event, 13 December: Brexit, the Backstop and the Island of Ireland

The Brexit Deal Would Resolve the Irish Border Issue – But No Deal is Still a Possibility!

John Doyle (Dublin City University)

Eileen Connolly (Dublin City University)

The draft withdrawal agreement finalised between the European Union and the United Kingdom offers a roadmap for a UK withdrawal from the EU. Up to the final stage of the negotiations that such a deal could be achieved had remained doubtful, and whether or not it can be ratified is still uncertain. Prime Minster May faces a significant challenge to get the agreement through the UK parliament, given the opposition from pro-Brexit MPs in the Conservative Party, the opposition of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Labour Party’s decision to vote against the agreement.

The draft agreement covers a wide range of issues, from Britain’s financial obligations, the treatment of EU citizens working in the UK and UK citizens working in the EU27, to the British bases in Cyprus. From an Irish perspective it provides for the possibility to continue the Common Travel Area arrangements between Ireland and the UK, and it preserves the Single Electricity Market on the island of Ireland. But most importantly for Ireland, it ensures that there will be no hard border between North and South.

The controversy around the Irish border has been the biggest obstacle to finalising a draft agreement and its resolution is the focus of pro-Brexit anger. This aspect of the agreement is strongly opposed by Northern Ireland’s DUP, whose MPs’ votes are necessary to give the British Conservative Government a working majority in parliament. The hard-line, pro-Brexit MPs in the Conservative Party have made the special arrangements for NI and the continued application of EU regulations throughout the UK a focus of their attacks on the Prime Minister’s negotiating position and on the draft agreement. For the Irish Government and the EU, ensuring an open Irish border was not negotiable, given the centrality of its importance to the Irish government and the need to maintain EU solidarity.

The Draft Withdrawal Agreement sets out a framework to avoid any checks on the Irish land border, involving initially a transition period to the end of 2020, during which all EU single market and customs rules will continue to apply to the UK as a whole. The transition period can be extended, once for a time-limited period, and a decision to extend will have to be made by July 2020. During the transition period both sides will “use their best endeavours” to negotiate a new trade relationship between the EU and the UK, which among other things will seek to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

If no long-term trade deal has been agreed by the end of 2020 (or by the end of the agreed extension period), then a backstop consisting of “a single customs territory between the (European) Union and the United Kingdom” will be triggered. In this case Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the rules and regulations of the EU single market in order to avoid regulatory checks on the Irish border, even if the regulatory framework in place in the UK deviates from that of the EU. In these circumstances some checks on Irish Sea crossings may be required in addition to those already in place regarding animal and plant health and safety. But this is not the desired outcome as under the agreement the UK will be required to meet “level playing field conditions”, to ensure it cannot gain a competitive advantage by increasing state aid to industry or by dropping environmental standards or social protections, and those level playing field conditions will continue as new regulations are passed. Either side can request a review of the backstop, but it requires a joint decision of both the UK and the EU to end it. While this gives an assurance to the Irish government, it is a source of contention for the pro-Brexit lobby, who argue that it ties the UK indefinitely into a customs union with the EU.

In the immediate aftermath of the publication of the agreement, although the challenge to the British Prime Minister has not received enough support to trigger a contest for the party leadership, there is no obvious majority for the draft agreement in the UK parliament. The state of play of the political parties means that there is a possibility that all potential resolutions on Brexit – on the negotiated agreement, on a “no deal” withdrawal, and on a second referendum – could all be defeated.

The DUP have not made it clear if they will vote against the deal or simply abstain. If they abstain and if the number of hard line pro-Brexit Conservative MPs is kept to a minimum, then there is a slight possibility that May could secure enough Labour support to avoid defeat. At present however this prospect seems remote. It also seems unlikely that a proposal for a second referendum on EU withdrawal would secure a majority in parliament, under current conditions. Things will have to get even worse for a second referendum to be accepted as compromise in a divided parliament where a decision to ‘let the people decide’ is the only way out of the impasse, apart from a general election.

Without strong and decisive leadership from Theresa May, a “No Deal” withdrawal may be the de facto outcome, in the absence of a positive majority for anything else. In that scenario all of the negative impacts for the island of Ireland will be live issues once again.


Professor John Doyle is Director of the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction and Executive Dean of DCU Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The Faculty hosts approximately 25% of DCU students, and a range of internationally linked research projects within its seven academic schools and five research centres. John was previously, Head of the School of Law and Government and before that founding co-Director of the Centre for International Studies in Dublin City University. His research interests include comparative nationalist and ethnic conflict; Northern Ireland, conflict in South Asia and Irish foreign policy. He is Editor of Irish Studies in International Affairs.

Professor Eileen Connolly is Director of the Ireland India Institute in DCU and a member of the School of Law and Government. Her research interests include gender and politics, women’s and political representation and post conflict reconstruction.  Prof. Connolly leads the Gender and Political Transition research cluster within DCU’s Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction – which includes a team of PhD students working in different regions, including Georgia, Moldova, Central Asia and the Caspian region, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America.   Prof. Connolly has led a number of research projects for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, official development agency – Irish Aid, including a major study of local civil society organisations in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Central America.  Prof. Connolly was previously Director of DCU’s  Centre for International Studies and she was a member of  Executive Committee of the ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research).


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