One of the ironies of the Brexit crisis in the UK is the price it is paying for having partitioned Ireland when it gained independence a century ago. At the final stage, the six counties of North Ireland rejected independence and stayed with the Union. The dissident province had Protestant majority and Catholic minority, while the independent part had Catholic majority. (Sounds familiar?)
The southern part became the Republic of Ireland while the northern part remained a part of the UK. Decades of Protestant discrimination of Catholics prevailed in the North. Then, in the late 1960s, a civil rights movement for the Catholics began with a revived Irish Republican Army (IRA). ‘Troubles’ followed with bombings and killings in the province and the British Army had to be stationed for 50 years to control the troubles (Kashmir anyone?).
The troubles got very violent and the only solution possible had to be brokered by the Americans. So in 1998 the Good Friday Treaty was signed. It pledged that any government in the Province will have representatives of both communities regardless of the numbers in the Assembly. This was a way of making sure that a majority does not oppress the minority. As both the UK and the Republic were in the European Union, there could be free flow of goods, and being in the Common Market the same rules applied about health regulations to be observed in growing food etc.
But come Brexit a problem came up. It was alright for England, Scotland and Wales — Great Britain — to leave the European Union and get out of the Customs Union and the Single Market. But what of Northern Ireland, which shared the island with the Republic which wanted to remain in the EU?
This conundrum has become the obstacle to Brexit. If the Province is to continue with a free border between the two parts of the island, then it cannot leave the EU. If it does, then it cannot have free movement where goods cross the border freely. There have to be Customs checks at the border. But then by an international treaty, the border has to be free. How do you square the circle?
This is called the Backstop problem. For a transition period of 21 months agreed between the EU and the UK after Brexit, things will continue as usual. Within that period a new free trade agreement could be arrived at and things will continue with the UK trading with the EU as a separate country, not a member of the EU. But if there is no free trade agreement at the end of the transition period, what happens? Great Britain, the mainland, can become subject to tariffs and goods can be inspected on import and export.
But as between the Republic and the Province, how can goods go across without inspection?
Former prime minister Theresa May tried an agreement (the Deal) in which not just the Province but the UK would continue in the EU till a solution was found. Her deal was rejected three times. Now current PM Boris Johnson is trying his luck. He has proposed that even if the Mainland exits, the Province could have a special arrangement as if it was still in. Every four years after 2020, the Assembly of the Province would vote whether to stay in the Common Market.
For trade purposes the partition of a hundred years ago is to be de facto annulled.