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What’s behind the hard border debate in Ireland?

This article is over 5 years, 2 months old
Tomáš Tengely-Evans unpacks the arguments around the “backstop” agreement and what it means for ordinary people
Issue 2640
Britain doesnt want a hard border in Ireland
Britain doesn’t want a hard border in Ireland (Pic: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916/Flickr)

The British state and the European Union (EU) both say they want to avoid a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Yet the issue has inflamed Tory division—and could see the government’s Brexit deal unravel.

The row revolves around what will happen after Britain officially leaves the European Union (EU) on 29 March.

If a Brexit deal is passed there’s likely to be a two-year “transition period” when Britain and the EU remain in a “common customs area”. Capital, goods, services and labour could continue to move between Britain and EU member states without border checks.

The border in Ireland becomes a sticking point if the EU and Britain haven’t negotiated a new trading relationship after the transition period ends. Under pressure from the EU’s rulers, Theresa May was forced to accept a “backstop”.

The backstop would see Northern Ireland remain in the EU single market and customs union after the British state left at the end of the transition period. So there would be some, very limited, customs checks for products moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Bosses don’t generally want to face new restrictions on their ability to move goods, services or money. But the prospect of the backstop didn’t incense the banks or big businesses.

So why is it causing trouble for the Tories? The making of Northern Ireland and the border is down to Britain.

A nationalist revolt broke out across Ireland in 1919, forcing the British Empire to negotiate within three years. Those talks led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922, which saw the majority of Ireland becoming a self?governing state within the Empire, and later a republic.

While Britain was forced to retreat, it wasn’t willing to give up the incredibly profitable six counties in the north.

The major shipbuilding and engineering industries have long ceased to be profitable, and the British state has treated Northern Ireland as a political slum. But what the ruling class does isn’t only down to profit and loss.


To solidify its rule in Ireland, the British stoked sectarian division between Catholics and Protestants. And the Tories, in particular, used British nationalism and imperialism to build a popular base at home.

Today right wing Tory MPs posture that the backstop “threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom”.

Britain founded Northern Ireland as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people” with Catholics as second class citizens. These forces relied on the British state but were also ready to fight for their own survival. The loyalists torpedoed, for example, the power?sharing agreement in 1974.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) isn’t going to allow a move that could be seen to erect a border between Britain and Northern Ireland. And, because May relies on their MPs’ votes in parliament, they were able to help to scupper her Brexit deal.

So the Tories passed a amendment to her deal calling for “alternative arrangements”, which could include a free trade agreement.

This might seem like a plausible compromise. After all, Britain and Ireland already had a Common Travel Area and a Free Trade Agreement before either state joined the EU. But the British state and the DUP aren’t the only players at the top.

The EU has already ruled it out because it is a regional capitalist bloc.

Its rulers want to control what goods and services and people come into their territory in order to protect their own profits and their Fortress Europe policy. A British-Irish free trade agreement would breach the EU’s external border customs union.

In fact, the EU is far more determined to enforce the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland than the Tories because it wants to be seen to punish Britain for leaving.

The real solution is for Britain to leave Ireland.

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