In the wake of statements on February 21 from both U.K. politicians and EU negotiators that questioned whether the Irish border could remain open after Brexit, there is much uncertainty over whether the negotiations can move forward and how this will affect the status of Northern Ireland in the U.K..
After a sluggish start, the Brexit negotiations finally appeared to achieve a breakthrough in December 2017. An agreement outlined the terms of separation between the U.K. and the EU and allowed the negotiators to move on to the second phase of the negotiations, involving the future relationship between London and Brussels. In the agreement, the parties reached an accord regarding a financial settlement, the status of EU citizens in the U.K., and the border between the U.K. and Ireland.
However, in the time it has taken to convert this agreement into the required legal language, the negotiations hit another stumbling block. On February 19, the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier said, “A U.K. decision to leave the single market and the customs union would make border checks [between Northern Ireland and Ireland]unavoidable.” However, this statement runs contrary to the understanding of both the U.K. and Irish governments, who have said that they remain committed to the Good Friday Agreement.
The milestone Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and ended the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland. In it, the Irish and British governments agreed that they would both have a say in the local government of Northern Ireland and that there would be no hard border between the two countries.
So far, the agreement has been successful in stopping violence in the region. However, on February 22, some politicians said that they would not be opposed to ending the agreement so that they could move forward with negotiations. Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson and Labour MP Kate Hoey declared that the deal had “outlived its use.”
A lack of functional local government in Northern Ireland exacerbates this instability and uncertainty. In May 2017, the Sinn Fein party, which wants a united Ireland, walked-out of the Northern Ireland Assembly, causing the local government to collapse. British Prime Minister Theresa May tried to create a power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) last week but failed after the DUP refused to grant the Irish language official status.
May is now expected in Brussels on February 26, the deadline to make a decision on the Northern Ireland question. If she cannot get an agreement that appeases her own Conservative Party, the Northern Irish DUP, the Irish government, and the EU negotiators before then, the future of Northern Ireland and Brexit will become even more uncertain.