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A schoolgirl walks past an anti-Brexit poster near the Irish border on November 14, 2018 in Newry, Northern Ireland. The poster reads, “Listen to the voices. Respect our vote. No EU frontier in Ireland! Border communities against Brexit.”
A schoolgirl walks past an anti-Brexit poster near the Irish border on November 14, 2018 in Newry, Northern Ireland.
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

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Brexit’s Irish border problem, explained

The so-called “Irish backstop” has derailed the Brexit deal. But the breakup of the United Kingdom and the European Union is threatening to interrupt a 20-year peace process in Northern Ireland.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The car bomb exploded outside a courthouse, at night, on an empty street. No one was injured — just a lone parked van transformed into a white-orange flame.

“You could see the ball of fire on the street,” a resident of Derry, Northern Ireland, where the bomb went off on January 19, 2019, told the BBC. “It sounded to me like a very significant blast. I haven’t heard anything like it in Derry for quite a while.”

Such blasts were frequent threats in places like Derry at the height of the Troubles, a 30-year conflict between the “unionists,” who were largely Protestant and identified with the United Kingdom, and the “nationalists,” who were mostly Catholics, identified as Irish, and sought a united Ireland.

The decades of violence, which included terror attacks launched by both nationalist and unionist paramilitary groups, claimed nearly 3,600 lives. The majority of the population on both sides of the divide didn’t engage in the conflict, but they became victims of the bombings and shootings as the years ground on.

Even the site of the January car bombing is a vestige of the divisions. The name of the city itself is contested; unionists tend to call it “Londonderry,” and nationalists simply call it “Derry.” Road signs that refer to it as Londonderry are sometimes the target of vandals, with “London” blacked out or scratched out in protest.

Forensic officers inspect the remains of the van used as a car bomb on an attack outside Derry Court House in Londonderry/Derry, Northern Ireland, on January 20, 2019.
Forensic officers inspect the remains of the van used as a car bomb on an attack outside Derry Court House in Derry, Northern Ireland, on January 20, 2019.
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The conflict formally ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. But the peace deal didn’t erase the deep fractures within Northern Ireland — and, as evidenced by the car bomb that went off in January, tensions persist more than 20 years after the peace accord was signed.

And now Brexit — the UK’s decision to leave the European Union — is threatening to rip open old grievances and unravel the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

At issue: the 310-mile Irish border, the land boundary that separates Northern Ireland — which is part of the United Kingdom — from the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent country and also a member of the European Union.

That border was heavily militarized during the Troubles, both a symbol of the strife and a very real target for nationalist paramilitary groups. A fundamental pillar of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict involved greater cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That meant softening the border between the two.

The European Union strengthened this truce, as its rules on trade and movement created the conditions for closer ties between the UK and Ireland. The watchtowers came down, the checkpoints disappeared. Now, the boundary is all but invisible.

Whether it will stay that way is one of the most critical questions of the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU. Once the two split up, the Irish border will also become the only land border between the UK and Europe.

This issue is wrapped up in what’s known as the “Irish backstop,” a wonky term that just refers to a guarantee that a “hard” Irish border — meaning actual physical checkpoints for goods and people trying to cross it — won’t be put in place when the EU and UK break up.

If a hard border is established, many fear it could inflame still-simmering tensions and reignite conflict.

To understand why the border is such a critical part of the Brexit conversation, here’s a look at Northern Ireland’s history, its current political fractures, and how Brexit and the backstop debate have intensified these fractures all over again.

A brief history of how Northern Ireland came to exist

Political conflict and bloodshed over the question of British rule on the island of Ireland has existed for centuries.

That history prefaced the partition of Ireland in the early 20th century. In 1920, British Parliament passed an act that split the island into two entities: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Each was given a degree of local control over its territory, but both were still formally part of the United Kingdom.

The partition occurred in May 1921, but the Irish in the south were waging a war for full independence from the British government. A truce was reached between the pro-independence forces and the British in 1921, and a 1922 peace treaty established the Irish Free State in what was previously Southern Ireland, giving it de facto independence. Northern Ireland chose to remain within the United Kingdom.

The Irish Free State became just “Ireland” in 1937, and then formally left the British Commonwealth and became the “Republic of Ireland” in 1949.

But this made the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland an international one. The boundary hardened over time as a result of policies in the UK and Ireland, including a trade war in the 1920s and ’30s that created customs checks, and some restrictions on travel between Ireland and the rest of the UK during World War II.

The British partition of the area into Northern Ireland and what became the Republic of Ireland was intended to separate majorities — those loyal to the UK on one side and those who felt strongly Irish on the other. But that division was imperfect and failed to satisfy those who wanted Ireland fully united. This was the precursor to the fighting that erupted within Northern Ireland in the decades after the partition.

Northern Ireland’s history of political conflict looms over Brexit

Northern Ireland was still a divided society, and it became more so in the 1950s and ’60s, particularly between the Catholic and Protestant populations. The two groups were often segregated, living in different neighborhoods and attending different schools. But Protestants, who often made up the unionist population loyal to the UK, also tended to hold much of the power in government and dominated the police forces in Northern Ireland.

The Catholic minority felt shut out and discriminated against, and began to make a largely peaceful push for greater civil rights in the 1960s.

But those tensions erupted into outright violence the late 1960s. In August 1969, riots broke out in several cities — including Derry (the site of that recent car bombing) — after clashes between the Northern Ireland police forces, UK loyalists, and Catholics.

Riot police running from exploding petrol bombs in the Bogside area of Derry on August 14, 1969.
Stan Meagher/Getty Images

The British military deployed to try to quell the violence. People in Northern Ireland welcomed the British troops at first, but as their stay lengthened, many, particularly in the Catholic communities that identified more closely with the nationalists, resented their tactics and presence. (Catholic unionists and Protestant nationalists do exist, but are far less common.)

Paramilitary groups on both sides capitalized on the chaos. The British military galvanized the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), which wanted to unite Ireland — by force, if necessary. The loyalist militias — loyal to Britain, that is — such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), also formed in response.

This unleashed “the Troubles” — decades of political violence marked by bombings, sniper fire, and a civilian population that was both polarized and terrorized.

British soldiers on patrol in Belfast during the unrest in Northern Ireland, on August 16, 1969.
British soldiers on patrol in Belfast during the unrest in Northern Ireland, on August 16, 1969.
James Jackson/Evening Standard/Getty Images

The Irish border became both an actual and symbolic battleground during the Troubles. British authorities destroyed civilian crossings to make it harder to go back and forth, over fears the IRA was finding safe haven in the Republic of Ireland. The border became heavily fortified with watchtowers and checkpoints and armed officers — and that became a target for the IRA.

The border became a visible and visceral reminder of the turmoil.

The Good Friday Agreement — and the EU — helped ease conflict in Northern Ireland

Peace talks happened in fits and starts in the 1990s, though outbursts of violence continued. Multi-party talks (thanks to a jolt from the US) ratcheted up in the mid-90s. The ultimate breakthrough came in 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10. It brought a political resolution to a conflict that had killed about 3,600 people.

The Good Friday Agreement set up a power-sharing arrangement for Northern Ireland, giving both nationalists and unionists a share in government. Paramilitary groups agreed to disarm in exchange for participating in the democratic process.

The agreement recognized Northern Ireland as part of the UK, though it included an option for a future border poll on a united Ireland. But an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland became an indispensable part of the peace process.

Convicted IRA members Louis McNally (left) and Sean McGuigan are welcomed by relatives after being released from the Maze Prison in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, on Friday, Sept 11, 1998. They were among the first prisoners to be released by the British gove
Convicted IRA members Louis McNally (left) and Sean McGuigan are welcomed by relatives after being released from the Maze Prison in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, on Friday, Sept 11, 1998. They were among the first prisoners to be released by the British government as part of the Good Friday Agreement.
Peter Morrison/AP

“By having an open border with the rest of Ireland, it’s an artful way of saying, ‘Well, even if you feel Irish, even if you would like Northern Ireland to be in the Republic of Ireland rather than the UK, an open border is an expression of this,’” Jamie Pow, researcher and deputy editor of Northern Slant, a Northern Ireland current affairs blog, told me.

And it likely couldn’t have happened if the UK and the Republic of Ireland hadn’t both been members of the European Union. The EU’s single market, which came into effect in 1993, instituted the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital among all EU member states.

That meant that even though Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland were two separate countries, border and customs checks between the two weren’t necessary. The EU made an open border practical for both economic and political reasons, and it offered a ready-made roadmap for a peace process.

That EU single market was the first big development, Donnacha Ó Beacháin, the author of From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland, told me. “And then a few years after that, they had the Good Friday Agreement which essentially de-escalates the conflict to such an extent that the threat to the British state is no longer one that justifies a militarized border. So those two things coming very closely together brings you this invisible, frictionless border which everybody wants to defend now,” he said.

The best way to think about the Good Friday Agreement, experts said, is as a treaty meant to manage, and mend, relationships: within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

This has been a slow and imperfect process — the last British watchtower came down in 2007 — but the EU helped it along. The Good Friday Agreement worked on the assumption that the UK and Ireland would be in the EU together. Membership also unsharpened some of the divisions between Irish and British identity by creating this common notion of EU citizenship, Colin Harvey, a professor of human rights law at Queen’s University Belfast and member of BrexitLawNI, told me.

Now, Brexit is reanimating those divisions and putting strain on those relationships.

That’s in part because while the Good Friday Agreement managed the conflict, Ó Beacháin said, it didn’t resolve it. People remain visibly divided in Northern Ireland. “They live in different areas, they read different newspapers, they go to different schools, they play different sports.

“People think that once the treaty is signed and nobody killed each other — they assume that everything’s fine,” he added.

The “hard border” question that the Brexit referendum ignored has come back with a vengeance

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in the June 2016 Brexit referendum, with 56 percent of the vote. Those who identified as nationalists overwhelmingly supported Remain, and but only about a third of unionists did so. Turnout was also the lowest in Northern Ireland — just 62 percent — compared to the rest of the UK.

But Northern Ireland makes up a very small share of the UK’s population — just 3 percent, or about 1.8 million people — and it did little to tip the final referendum outcome, which ended up seeing “Leave” win 52-48.

And the question of the Irish border was barely mentioned in the larger Brexit referendum debate in the UK. The Leave campaign mostly focused on immigration and the potential economic benefits — great new trade deals! — that would materialize once Britain was freed from the perceived onerous regulations of the EU. It wasn’t a key talking point for Remainers; overall, the Irish border lacked urgency in the debate.

“The very part of the UK that has a land border with the rest of the EU was so badly neglected in the broader UK debate,” Pow, the researcher, told me.

The most high-profile plea came from former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major, both key figures in the peace process, who went to Northern Ireland to warn that Brexit could create a hard border that could threaten peace. They made their pitch in June 2016, a little more than two weekcs before the referendum vote.

Those last-ditch efforts didn’t work. And now that the UK is leaving the EU, the Irish border question has become one of the most difficult problems to solve.

The European Commission Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier (center) gestures towards the north as he is accompanied by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, Charlie Flanagan (right) along the border separating Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic known as Consession Road on May 12, 2017 in Monaghan, Ireland.
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May set out “red lines” early on in the Brexit negotiations. Those red lines — meaning things the UK wouldn’t accept — included an end to its membership in the permanent customs union and the single market. At the same time, she promised a frictionless border in Ireland. “Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past,” May said in 2017, “so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.”

These red lines cater to the hard-Brexit wing of her party, who want the UK to make its own trade deals (which it can’t really do if it stays in the customs union) and control migration (which it can’t do if it stays in the single market).

They also make avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland extraordinarily difficult. Again, post-Brexit, this will be the only land border between the EU and UK. So if the UK leaves the customs union and single market, the two countries would be following totally different rules. And whatever passes through — from milk to cows — would need to be verified.

That will require some sort of checkpoint, which could sharpen the already-present divisions on the island and potentially even threaten the Good Friday Agreement altogether.

This isn’t just about customs checks — it’s about what comes after

A recent survey by the Irish Army reportedly found about 300 crossings on the 310-mile Irish border, many of them private or unmarked roads. Ó Beacháin told me that the only hint that you’ve crossed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is the roadway: The two governments pave and repave the roads at different intervals, so a slight change in the hue, or the road’s smoothness, is the only sign you’ve passed from one side to the other.

“There’s no border post, there’s no installations, there’s nothing,” Ó Beacháin said. “And that’s part of what was promised to nationalists in Northern Ireland.”

Brexit, and the hard border that may come with it, betrays that promise. It’s both a practical hindrance — it’s going to be a lot harder for the two neighbors to trade if they’re following completely different rules and regulations — but also a symbolic one: a physical barrier returning to the border.

Customs checks might not sound that bad: show some papers, wait a few minutes. But Northern Ireland’s peace is still new enough that many fear things could quickly escalate.

Two men dressed as customs officers take part in a protest outside Stormont, Northern Ireland’s Parliament building located in Belfast, against Brexit and its possible effect on the north and south Irish border, on March 29, 2017.
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The majority of people in Northern Ireland bought into the peace process — but not everyone. Fringe groups still exist, such as the “New IRA,” the dissident Irish republican paramilitary group believed to be behind the car bomb in Derry last month.

Customs checks along the border could become a target for those groups — just as they were during the Troubles. Customs officers could become targets of protests or attacks; if they have to protect themselves, will police or military need to step in? Even the use of technology at the border could be potentially problematic: If equipment such as cameras or drones or even sensors get vandalized, they will need to be fortified with physical infrastructure or someone will have to post up and guard it.

“It starts with something innocuous like a customs post and it ends up being a fortified border simply because of the need to protect the modest construction that was initially put there,” Ó Beacháin said.

The militant groups don’t have a lot of widespread popular support right now. But Brexit gives them an argument they didn’t have before, which is: Nationalists bought into a peace process in 1998 with the UK, and 20 years later, the UK abandoned it. A customs check in a place that used to be open roadway serves as the evidence.

“That’s the scary thing,” Pow said. “It’s not as if everyone supported violence during the Troubles. If you create conditions that allow people to exploit things like this, then you just don’t know how things could escalate.”

The complications of the Irish backstop

As stated above, the Irish border issue was largely ignored before the referendum — but afterward, the EU and the UK quickly realized they’d need to come up with some way to solve the problem.

How to do this was much more complicated. May’s Brexit deal with the EU establishes a 21-month transition period during which nothing changes practically in the EU-UK relationship, except that the UK can’t sit on any EU bodies or make decisions. (The transition can be renewed one time for up to two years.)

The point of this transition period is to give the EU and the UK more time to figure out their future relationship: what trade, security cooperation, and other things — including, critically, the Irish border — will look like after the divorce is final.

But the EU — particularly Ireland — got nervous that this would delay the problem instead of solving it, so both sides agreed in 2017 that they would come up with an option of last resort for the Irish border. Otherwise known as the “backstop.”

This is essentially an insurance policy in the EU-UK withdrawal agreement that no matter what happens post-Brexit, the two sides will avoid a hard Irish border. That includes protecting EU citizens living in Northern Ireland (as many have dual Irish-UK citizenship) and free movement on the island of Ireland. (You’ll also hear “Irish protocol.”)

It took a lot of wrangling, but eventually May and her EU counterparts reached a compromise in November 2018. It said that if May and the EU haven’t figured out how to avoid physical checks on the Irish border by the end of the transition period, the entire UK will stay in a customs arrangement with the EU. Northern Ireland will also have a slightly closer alignment with the EU’s rules when it comes to goods. The backstop ends when both sides agree to a permanent arrangement that keeps the border open, and the UK can’t pull out of it unilaterally.

That compromise has roiled May’s party — and pretty much all of British politics. The hardcore Brexiteers — those who want a clean break with the EU — see this as treachery, because (not incorrectly, to be fair) it could potentially trap the UK in a close relationship with the EU indefinitely.

This has also angered strong unionists in Northern Ireland, including those in the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). These staunch unionists fear this backstop still treats Northern Ireland differently, which they see as a threat because it creates distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (May’s party also relies on the DUP to keep her government in power, so their objections have outsized influence in this debate.)

Meanwhile, Remainers and those who favor a softer Brexit hate this backstop arrangement, too. They see it as proof that the entire “Leave” campaign was a sham and unmoored to reality. And they’re not entirely wrong, either.

“It gets to the fundamental problem,” Ó Beacháin said. “The only way to really keep [the border] open would mean having to adjust the initial red lines of Brexit. It almost seems Brexit is incompatible with keeping the Irish border open.”

May wants to renegotiate the backstop. The EU says no. What happens now?

The backstop helped kill May’s deal in Parliament in January, in one of the worst defeats for a British government in modern history.

After the loss, May had to present her “Plan B” to Parliament. In it, she said she would seek more assurances from the EU that the backstop wouldn’t be used. But the UK Parliament took it one step further, and voted on January 29 to send May back to Brussels to find “alternate arrangements” to the Irish backstop.

The EU had said the withdrawal agreement, which included the backstop, was final — the UK could take it or leave the EU without a deal. After May said she’d go back to Brussels, the EU repeated, immediately and unequivocally, that it would not reopen talks on the withdrawal agreement.

So May set up an “Alternative Arrangements Working Group” to look at, well, alternative arrangements to the backstop. One such suggestion is this so-called “Malthouse Compromise” (named for housing minister and MP Kit Malthouse), which would offer the EU two options: either extending the transition period to 2021 and preparing in advance for no future relationship, or extending the transition period and immediately moving to an EU-UK free trade agreement that would rely on technology to avoid customs checks at the border.

One problem with this compromise or other attempts to find “alternative arrangements” is that it’s not clear technology exists that can actually deliver an open border. As explained above, any sort of physical infrastructure — be it cameras, sensors, drones, or whatever else — could still be a target for vandals or radical groups. And even technology creates friction, as something like a drone or sensor are now tracking and surveilling the border and those who move across it.

Oh, and the EU isn’t buying the technology idea, either.

This has left Brexit at a total impasse. The EU and May’s government are currently talking, and May told Parliament on Tuesday, February 12 she needs more time to renegotiate — only to have the hardline Brexiters in her party turn against her and reject this strategy later that same week. This likely weakened any long-shot chance May had of swaying the EU to change its position. And through it all, the future of Northern Ireland remains increasingly precarious.

Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement about progress on Brexit talks inside the House of Commons in London, England on February 12, 2019.
House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images

That’s because if the EU and the UK don’t approve a Brexit deal, the UK could leave the EU without anything in place on March 29, 2019 — which means no transition period and no protocol for the Irish border.

The Irish border then automatically becomes a hard one, the exact fate everyone is purportedly trying to avoid.

The Northern Ireland question may end up tearing the UK apart — literally

The Irish backstop has riled Britain’s political parties. But, interestingly, Northern Ireland as a whole is pretty okay with the backstop as it is, or at least some sort of special arrangement to avoid a hard border.

The business community in Northern Ireland has gotten behind May’s deal, and a recent survey conducted by Pow and his colleagues found broad support for a soft Brexit — about 60 percent — among respondents in Northern Ireland. That includes unionists, nationalists, and a growing middle that doesn’t really identify with either.

A soft Brexit would balance the deeply held interests of all sides by avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and avoiding any barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

But with just weeks to go before the Brexit deadline, the UK still isn’t really listening. May visited Belfast, Northern Ireland on February 5, where she reaffirmed her “commitment to delivering a Brexit that ensures no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland — which is unshakable.” May acknowledged the anxieties in the region brewing because of the Brexit debate, even as she is still trying to renegotiate the element of the deal most critical to it and is still refusing to budge on her stated red lines.

That disconnect doesn’t just put Northern Ireland at risk of heightened tensions, but also increases the risk that the UK itself could be torn apart. That’s because the Good Friday Agreement includes the possibility of holding a border poll, where Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could vote to form one country.

Support for doing so wasn’t strong in the past — divisions were too deep, and again, that open border and membership in the EU ameliorated some of the passion for reunification. But Brexit has started to revive the debate, particularly among nationalist parties like Sinn Féin. And a hard, disruptive Brexit could convince even more people in Northern Ireland to support leaving the UK and joining their Irish neighbors to the south — less for ideological reasons than for practical ones. Specifically, the benefits of membership in the EU.

That outcome is still a long, long way off. But Brexit has rattled the status quo.

“This region is as unsettled as I’ve known it in a long time,” Harvey, the human rights lawyer, told me. “There’s a lot of anxiety and fear out there around the uncertainty of all of this.”

“We’re now a matter of weeks before the UK exits,” he said, “and we essentially have no clarity or certainty about what’s going to happen.”

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