November 19, 2018 British Prime Minister Theresa May replies to questions after speaking at the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) annual conference in London, Britain, November 2018.
Toby Melville / REUTERS

W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s comic history of England, 1066 and All That, talks about nineteenth-century British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone’s efforts to solve the Irish Question—the puzzle of what to do with rebellious Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom. According to Sellar and Yeatman, every time that Gladstone got close to an answer the Irish changed the question. Over the last couple of days, a new Irish question has stymied Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU: how to deal with the border between the Republic of Ireland, which will remain part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which will not. This time it’s EU negotiators who keep on trying to come up with answers, while British politicians keep on changing the question.

At one point last week, it looked as though the EU and the United Kingdom had reached a provisional deal. British Prime Minister Theresa May brought the deal to her cabinet, which accepted it. But then, a few hours later, British ministers started to resign over the deal—including Dominic Raab, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, who had helped negotiate it, only to later apparently decide that it wasn’t nearly good enough. British politics is now in chaos. Most dread the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit, where the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU without any cushion, leading to massive economic and political instability. Yet no one has any good proposal for how to avoid it. There is no obvious deal that is both acceptable to the EU and likely to pass in the House of Commons.

Two and a half years ago, when British voters were contemplating the prospect of leaving the European Union, no one expected to be in this situation. Pro-Brexit politicians such as Boris Johnson promised British voters that they could have their cake and eat it too, leaving the bits of the EU that they didn’t like (intrusive regulations drafted in Brussels) on the plate while stuffing down the tastier parts of the confection (continued access to the EU’s single market). The pro-Brexit campaign tossed out promises with drunken abandon—suggesting, for example, that the country would get back 350 million pounds per week to spend on its National Health Service—while the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland went completely undiscussed.

After the Leave side narrowly won the actual Brexit vote, however, the hangover started to set in. There wasn’t going to be any more money for spending—instead, the British economy was going to grow less. The EU was not going to be willing to provide access to the single market unless the United Kingdom agreed to abide by European regulations. And the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic became the single most difficult political question in the Brexit negotiations.

A NEW IRISH QUESTION

The EU had drained some of the political poison out of Northern Irish politics, removing the need for customs posts along the border with the Republic and creating a broader shared political context for both unionists and nationalists. The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU tore this all up, reopening vexed political questions and threatening the return of border controls. May’s ill-advised April 2017 decision to seek a snap election did not help either: when she lost her parliamentary majority, she had to strike a “confidence and supply” deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to remain in power.

This presented problems because the EU (in large part thanks to assiduous diplomacy by the Irish government) demanded that the United Kingdom agree to avoid the reinstatement of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic as a condition for beginning real negotiations. After preliminary discussions, the British government agreed in principle to a “backstop”—an insurance policy under which the United Kingdom would agree to a special arrangement for the Irish border in the event that there was no broader deal. The EU interpreted the backstop as meaning that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs union, while British negotiators remained ambiguous and dismissed the backstop as a legally meaningless and empty concession. The British side’s continued unwillingness to state what it meant by the backstop, and repeated hints that it regarded it as nonbinding, provoked the EU to publish its own interpretation in February 2018, which demanded clear-cut regulatory arrangements rather than political fudging. British politicians reacted in horror, leading to bitter arguments that have plagued negotiations ever since.

The new withdrawal deal was drafted to defuse British hostility to the backstop by redefining it to cover the United Kingdom as a whole. This would prevent any customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but it would also require the United Kingdom to accept EU rules as long as it was part of the union. The United Kingdom wanted a deal under which it could withdraw from the backstop unilaterally. The EU refused, so the two sides compromised on an arrangement in which a joint committee would decide the withdrawal question. Initial proposals for a “backstop to the backstop” that would apply to Northern Ireland alone were formally abandoned, but special arrangements for Northern Ireland were quietly interlaced throughout the text and its annexes. When the United Kingdom leaves the transitional customs arrangement, Northern Ireland will still be bound by EU law in many important areas, unless both sides agree on an alternative arrangement.

The problem is that there is no majority for the proposed deal in the British Parliament. The Ulster unionists of the DUP, who favor Northern Ireland’s remaining in political union with the rest of the United Kingdom, are convinced that the proposal is a first step toward the united Ireland they have dreaded for so long. Meanwhile, hard Brexiteers see the deal as a sellout, while the British Labour Party has no interest in rescuing the Conservative government from the mess it has created.

The Northern Irish unionist response to the deal stems from paranoia. Many prominent unionists have always suspected that the backstop was an Irish government plot intended to loosen Northern Ireland’s ties with the United Kingdom and then absorb it into the Republic, first by getting rid of the customs border with the Republic, and then by replacing it with an effective border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom through controls imposed to prevent British exporters from abusing a backdoor entrance into the EU. These controls, however, would probably not be very stringent, and would only come into play if the rest of the United Kingdom left the EU’s customs union. Even then, Northern Ireland could prosper economically, since it would enjoy unique access to both British and European markets.  

The truth is that the Irish government has no particular desire to assert control over Northern Ireland. Cold hard economic costs and political instability associated with any change in the status quo trump its hazy official aspirations toward a united Ireland. Even if unionist fears are out of touch with reality, however, they are still politically potent, since the DUP can take the British government down if it tries to push through an unacceptable deal. DUP leader Arlene Foster has claimed that the deal results from the machinations of an “aggressive” Irish government and has said that there will be “consequences” if the British government tries to force the deal through.

Sinn Fein members hold a protest against Brexit outside Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland, October 2018.
Sinn Fein members hold a protest against Brexit outside Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland, October 2018.
Clodagh Kilcoyne / REUTERS

Many hard pro-Brexiters on the British mainland, meanwhile, couldn’t care less about Northern Ireland. Instead, they have seemed repeatedly astounded that the interests of Ireland are shaping the endgame negotiations. Johnson has complained that the tail is wagging the dog. The euroskeptic Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg accused Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of “absurd, vote-chasing immaturity” for pressing for a backstop. Now, he has formally called for May to step down as Conservative leader and prime minister. When Raab resigned, he claimed that the arrangements for Northern Ireland “presented a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom,” and said that he could not possibly support an “indefinite backstop arrangement where the EU holds a veto over our ability to exit.” Hard euroskeptics would like to unseat May as Conservative leader and prime minister, but do not appear to have enough votes.

Some in May’s camp have hoped that as the deal loses votes from unionists and convinced euroskeptics, it might win them from Labour Party defectors. But this seems increasingly unlikely: no politician wants to spend political capital on an unlovable compromise that makes nobody happy. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that the deal “would leave the country in an indefinite halfway house without a real say over our future,” and is about to announce his own alternative plan, which would combine continued single market access with major infrastructural and regional spending.

A DEAL WITHOUT APPEAL

The immediate problem is that there is no visible majority to support the deal that May has proposed. The more serious and profound problem is that there is no visible majority for any deal that the EU would be prepared to agree to. Every time that the EU thinks that it has an answer, the United Kingdom changes the question. Pro-Brexit politicians, who once promised that the country would stay integrated in EU market and customs arrangements, now denounce this as a proposal that would make the country a “vassal” state. The EU, observing this, is extremely unlikely to offer any further significant concessions, since it knows that they will be pocketed, and immediately replaced with further—and increasingly impossible—demands. The lack of any possible majority for any possible deal means that British leaders have kept shifting from impossible position to impossible position, hoping that somehow something will change.

There is no visible majority to support the deal that May has proposed.

Perhaps it will. It is at least possible that as politicians wake up to the true desperation of the United Kingdom’s situation, they will become more flexible. The Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Northern Irish farmers’ organizationthat is one of the bulwarks of rural Ulster unionism, has begun to argue that a hard border will damage their members’ livelihoods. A couple of euroskeptic politicians, including Raab, quietly acknowledge that a no-deal Brexit may cripple the British economy. May’s hope, such as it is, is that desperate circumstances will lead unionists or euroskeptics to back down, or that impending crisis will realign parliamentary politics around centrist Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic politicians, who could coalesce temporarily to bring a deal through. For now, however, there is little visible evidence that this will happen. Even if there is a majority on paper for such a deal, May knows that it would probably break the Conservative Party in two. Rather, the odds of a no-deal Brexit that nearly no one wants keeps on rising, because there’s no better answer that people can unite around.

CORRECTION APPENDED (November 24, 2018): An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of the arrangement made between the Conservative and Democratic Unionlist parties following the 2017 general election in the United Kingdom. It was a  “confidence and supply” agreement, not a coalition government. We regret the error. 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • HENRY FARRELL is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
  • More By Henry Farrell