After an incredibly difficult fortnight in which it’s been felt like each day could be the Prime Minister’s last, Theresa May is in Northern Ireland for a two day visit. You might think she’s due a bit of a summer break but here’s why she’s not going to be able to put her feet up and enjoy the uncommonly good British weather any time soon…
What's on the agenda?
The Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland on a two-day visit focusing on Brexit and the political stalemate in the country where the devolved Stormont assembly has been suspended since January of last year.
Theresa May and the previous Brexit Secretary David Davis have both been criticised for not having visited Northern Ireland since triggering Article 50 to leave the European Union in March 2017 despite it being a source of major contention in the negotiations.
This is just the start of an expected UK tour to sell her Chequers Brexit plan which has only just survived her own MPs. Theresa May will be going around the country to try to explain the details of her plan to build public support of it ahead of the negotiations with the EU over the summer and an expected battle in the back in the Commons in the Autumn.
Why Northern Ireland first?
The border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is going to be the only land border between the EU and the United Kingdom.
With the UK on course for a Hard Brexit (or possibly even No Deal Brexit) leaving the Single Market and Customs Union some kind of customs checks are going to have to be put in place.
However the 300-mile long border has around 270 crossing points, that’s more than the EU’s entire eastern flank. So logistically it would be very difficult to operate customs checks without huge infrastructure and an inevitable slowing down of trade because of queues. there’s been some fanciful talk about a technological solution but so far no one has come up with any kind of workable one.
The Brexiteer camp have tried to play down the issue of the border, with David Davis having talked vaguely of the solution being “a whole load of new technology”.
However, in March the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee expressed its concern over progress, pointing out the absence of a technical solution anywhere else in the world that could be adopted to render the border invisible.
Why has this border proven such a sticking point?
The border has a special historical significance which needs to be appreciated. During the Irish Troubles this border was heavily militarised, only 20 crossing points were open to people and travellers had to go through military checkpoints.
A new customs border with checks would be against the spirit and intent of the Good Friday Agreement which has brought relative peace to Northern Ireland. Because the border was only drawn almost one hundred years ago when the Republic of Ireland gained independence, several roads zigzag between the two countries and the only way to tell where you are is the units used to show distances and the colour of the road signs.
Under the terms of the Agreement signed in 1998, the border has become an open one with people and goods moving back and forth freely. People on both sides of it know how damaging it would be to both economies and they simply don’t want to break that crucial agreement and go back in time.
That’s why the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has been so firm during these negotiations on getting this backstop of no border but for Theresa May leaving the single market and customs union means its got to go somewhere and her unionist DUP allies will not let that be in the Irish Sea for fear of a move towards reunification of Ireland.