By Ahmet Gurhan Kartal
The land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has become one of the sticking points in the so-called divorce talks between the U.K. and EU since Britain officially triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to leave the bloc.
Negotiations with the union for the straightforward exit by any other EU member state would probably have been much easier on border issues, but the Irish frontier has proved a vexing problem, with the aspects of the economy, accessibility and complex identity dynamics involved.
As the biggest political party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on Monday blocked a possible deal to move onto the second phase of negotiations between the U.K. and EU, a deal meant to solve the border issue with a “regulatory alignment” of the U.K. region with the bloc.
But DUP leader Arlene Foster rejected the deal, which was not shared with the public or other political parties either in Great Britain or in Northern Ireland, during a news conference while Prime Minister Theresa May was in a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
Foster, after the main principles of the deal were leaked by some members of the European Parliament, refused the agreement, rejecting any suggestion of concessions to keep Northern Ireland close to EU trade rules to avoid the return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Her move forced May to leave the meeting with Juncker to have an urgent phone conversation with the DUP leader.
Why May cannot go ahead with deal despite the DUP
May returned to London after the announcement of a deal to move forward was delayed and held a Cabinet meeting Tuesday morning straight after. She said they will reconvene and remained hopeful on reaching a deal this week.
She aims to rescue the deal needed to persuade Ireland and the other remaining 26 EU nations at a summit next week that “sufficient progress” has been made on separation issues to move Brexit negotiations onto the future trading relationship.
However, May seems to have found herself in a tough spot to secure the deal with the EU because of the so-called “confidence and supply” voting arrangement she made with the DUP, which keeps her minority Conservative Party government in power.
The deal was reached by the Conservatives and DUP so that May could form a minority government after her party lost its parliamentary majority in a snap election this June.
But pro-EU circles in London have voiced their concern about the latest move by the DUP and underlined that the government is now having a hard time with the veto because, if the DUP takes away its support for May in the House of Commons, her minority government will collapse.
Dublin’s position on the border arrangements in the Brexit negotiations will not change following rejection of a proposal that regulation on the island of Ireland should continue to be aligned after Brexit.
Monday evening Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach (prime minister), accused May of reneging on an agreed position, and tanaiste (deputy prime minister) Simon Coveney said one party could not decide what is acceptable for all the actors involved.
“Of course we need to listen to the DUP; they’re an important part of Northern Ireland politics,” Coveney said Tuesday, “but we can’t have one political party that decides what’s acceptable and what’s not for the Irish and British governments and indeed for the EU negotiating team because they happen to hold the balance of power in Westminster.”
What is the fuss about?
Northern Ireland’s voters said they wanted to remain in the EU in the June 2016 Brexit referendum, as did voters in Scotland.
The British government has said they would respect the overall U.K. vote of leaving the EU, and all the countries of the kingdom -- England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland alike -- would be leaving the union under the same terms.
However, May has reportedly agreed to a deal with the following terms in a bid to avoid a hard border in Ireland -- a prerequisite by the EU to move the talks to the second phase.
“The U.K. remains committed to protecting North-South co-operation and a guarantee to avoiding a hard border,” says a document leaked to the press.
“The U.K.’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-U.K. relationship.
“Should this not be possible, the U.K. will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland.
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the U.K. will maintain full alignment with the internal market, customs union, and protection of the Good Friday agreement.”
What comes next?
As May tries to convince the DUP on Wednesday to lift their veto on the deal, she is also preparing to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, saying she is “confident” on reaching a deal.
The EU’s position on moving the Brexit talks to further stages remains relevant to what the U.K. says by the end of the week.
With the objection of the DUP, the whole deal seems close to being finalized yet so far.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.