The very existence of Northern Ireland means that a “clean break” Brexit was never possible. A hard, sharp Brexit for the whole of the UK cannot be done without causing fatal damage to the union. For all the Democratic Unionist party’s talk of the UK leaving the customs union and the single market “as one nation”, there are few believers in the “one nation” these days.
The fact that Northern Ireland is not only across the Irish Sea, but also home to an idiosyncratic suite of political parties and a white elephant of a devolved legislature, makes it the part of the UK that is rather more easy to forget than to accommodate. One of the lasting legacies of Brexit – no matter how it turns out – is that it has reminded the British in Britain of the fairly ungainly nature of the UK state. Ironically, this has happened as much because of the European Union’s insistence on avoiding a hard Irish border as it has because of the DUP’s canny use of the Westminster spotlight.
Brexit is already having a tangible negative impact in Northern Ireland, in economic and in social terms
Unfortunately for the unionists, reminding people in Britain about Northern Ireland’s unique position does not give rise to a surge of patriotic solidarity. This is a sober lesson for all of us of all backgrounds and perspectives in Northern Ireland, and is something that will no doubt be worked out in different ways in the medium to long term. Inevitably, this lesson will be interpreted primarily in terms of the future of the Irish border – will it stay or will it go? – and this is why the stakes feel so high for all concerned.
The DUP is well aware of this. What is in the forefront of their minds is the preservation of the union. And they assume that the success of this ambition rests more securely on what they are able to do as 10 MPs, rather than what the Conservative party does. The team effort between the pro-union DUP and Brexiteer Tory MPs earlier this year was rallied with one intention: to bring down the withdrawal agreement Theresa May brought back from Brussels.
But their unholy alliance was forged by an ideological puritanism rather than by common cause. The DUP wanted no backstop with specific conditions for Northern Ireland; the Conservatives’ European Research Group wanted no backstop with an all-UK dimension. A hard Brexit for Britain could not include Northern Ireland without (over time) producing the conditions that would cause stress fractures across the union. If Boris Johnson’s attempted deal enables a hard Brexit, it will not be cost free for Northern Ireland.
Who dare raise the obvious point that May’s original withdrawal agreement was the version that could give the most succour both to unionists and Brexiteers? The frequency with which ERG and DUP figures are entering and exiting 10 Downing Street this week suggests Johnson is keen to bring both on board – indeed, he has no choice if a deal is to have any chance of getting through Westminster. If Johnson is going to appease both then the appeasement will have to come in some form other than in the substance of the agreement. For the ERG this may be about creating the conditions for a hard Brexit in the medium term; for the DUP, it may be about being able to present it as a win for unionism.
And thus we return to the matter of “consent”. The DUP’s newly found fondness for the Good Friday agreement puts them in line for having a say over where Northern Ireland will be aligned at the end of a transition period. Perhaps they are hoping to exploit British commentators’ lack of familiarity with the 1998 agreement as much as they are planning to exploit voters’ lack of care for the differences between customs unions, partnerships and territories.
But when all is said and done, the realities of Brexit will have an impact right on their doorstep. And a dysfunctional Northern Ireland will not only be an albatross around the neck of Britain (again); it would be a responsibility that the DUP would have to carry.
Northern Ireland – and the Irish border in particular – is the point at which the UK and EU come together. Rip them apart and the north’s economy, society, politics and peace are also rent asunder. This week a report I’m writing, about the Brexit border, published its interim findings. The study into the central border region of Ireland/Northern Ireland showed that Brexit is already having a tangible negative impact in economic and social terms.
Undoing the harm already caused – let alone preventing further destruction – will be a challenge that Northern Ireland politicians of all hues will have to take on. As the clock ticks towards 31 October, the DUP must be aware it is a sore that few in Britain will rush to salve.
• Katy Hayward is a reader in sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and the author of Bordering on Brexit