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A nation must think before it acts.
British Prime Minister Theresa May was in Northern Ireland yesterday and today to address what has become Brexit’s thorniest issue: the Irish border. A steady barrage of statements, agreements, and hot takes makes it challenging to follow the situation as it unfolds across the Atlantic. Here’s an update from the border.
Under the 1998 Belfast Agreement that ended three decades of violence between Protestant unionists and Catholic republicans, six northeastern counties on the island of Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. Critically, however, residents were permitted to choose British and/or Irish citizenship. Manned border outposts, which had been obvious targets for republicans, disappeared. But Northern Ireland’s neighborhoods—and politics—remain largely segregated along sectarian lines, and tensions remain in spite of relatively low levels of inter-communal violence.
In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by a majority of 56% to 44% to remain in the European Union, while the majority of the UK voted to leave. Subsequent polls have found that an even larger majority of Northern Irish now wants to remain.
When—some would say if—the UK leaves the EU and takes Northern Ireland with it, some form of border controls would likely arise to separate the North from the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU. Many view a border as undesirable not only because of the tariffs that would separate Northern Ireland from its largest trade partner, but also because it appears to challenge the border-free provision of the fragile 20 year-old peace agreement. The prospect of greater British sovereignty remains intolerable for many republicans. Those who routinely cross the invisible border to shop or visit family also stand to lose.
Ahead of negotiations with the EU, May appears to have committed to incompatible positions in the process of building party support, though she denies any inconsistency. Thomas Raines at Chatham House explains the dilemma this way:
For months, the government has been trying to square a seemingly impossible circle, in which Britain formally leaves the EU’s single market and customs union, avoids a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and ensures there is a deal for the whole of the UK (i.e. making sure that there is no separate deal for Northern Ireland). May remains steadfastly committed to leaving the single market, and to avoiding a hard border. Yet leaving the single market would necessitate the need for checks on the Irish border, or specific arrangements for Northern Ireland, which she (and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government) have already excluded.
Ask the BBC’s “chatbot” here.