Europe’s Ireland Problem Is Here to Stay

Brexit created a problem that cannot be solved, only managed. Both Britain and the European Union are responsible for what happens now.

The letters "IRA" are spray-painted on a speed-limit sign.
Andrew McConnell / Panos / Redux

In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell introduced President George W. Bush to the “Pottery Barn rule”: “You break it, you own it.” Powell’s point was that military victory over Saddam Hussein would not be the end of America’s involvement, but the beginning. Something similar is true for Northern Ireland today, where the fragile peace settlement that has just about held for nearly a quarter century is close to breaking. And if Powell’s logic is right, those that brought the situation to this point now own the problem: not simply British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but the European Union too.

In polite society, it is almost uniformly accepted that Britain, and Britain alone, broke things in Northern Ireland, and at first glance, the case against Johnson and Britain seems to be watertight. By leaving the EU, and doing so in the way that it did—exiting the EU’s economic zone as well as its political structure—Britain created a problem that did not previously exist: namely, the need for a trade and customs border between Britain and the EU. This border is at the heart of the crisis in Northern Ireland today.

In ordinary circumstances, a border should not be an issue. Economic borders tend to sit alongside national borders. The problem is that Northern Ireland is not ordinary, but a land divided between those who consider themselves Irish (and who mostly want Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland, an independent country in the EU), and those who consider themselves British (and who mostly want Northern Ireland to remain in the U.K., separate from the Republic of Ireland). Wherever an economic border is placed, one side of this divide is going to feel separated from the land they consider home. This is a problem because under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which everyone claims to want to protect, Northern Ireland remains part of the U.K. until a majority there (and in the Republic) says otherwise, but is governed by a system that functions only if power is shared between the sides. And to do this, there must be a consensus.

The situation is this: To “get Brexit done” after years of turmoil, Johnson agreed to a divorce deal with the EU that placed the economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain—within the U.K.—to avoid requiring checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Ever since this was agreed, however, Northern Irish politics has been in turmoil, with British unionists arguing—reasonably—that the deal prioritizes Irish nationalists’ wishes not to have a land border on the island of Ireland over unionists’ desire not to have a sea border within their own country. In protest, unionists are refusing to share power until the issue is fixed to their satisfaction. And so, a deal apparently made to protect the Good Friday Agreement is the main block to the functioning of the political institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement.

On Monday, Johnson traveled to Northern Ireland for talks with political leaders and issued a warning that unless the EU agreed to change the arrangement (that he signed up to), he would introduce new laws in the U.K. to unilaterally override some of its provisions. In response, the EU has warned that it could suspend its post-Brexit trade agreement with Britain, effectively beginning a trade war between the two sides. Such is the seriousness of the situation that U.S. President Joe Biden has intervened to caution Johnson against acting unilaterally.

Though Johnson incontestably owns much of this mess, ignoring the EU’s role obscures the reality. The EU shares some of the blame for the crisis. It may not have broken Northern Ireland, but it has bought shares in the place and will not be able to sell them. Northern Ireland is a permanent problem, one involving endless fixes, fudges, bargains, and compromises that will bedevil the relationship between London and Brussels from here on in.

Though many of Britain’s Brexiteers, and certainly Johnson, have clearly been reckless in their treatment of Northern Ireland—not to mention delusional in their stated belief that the border problem can be magicked away by technology, political will, or some combination of the two—the EU has been equally delusional in believing that this is an issue that can somehow be solved in law, codified and fixed without the consent of both communities living there. That is not how Northern Ireland works.

In fact, this mistaken belief has been a fundamental problem of the negotiations between Britain and the EU. Early on, Brussels declared that it would not sign up to any agreement with the U.K. that did not include a permanent solution to the Irish border issue. Unless Britain wanted to inflict significant damage on its economy by leaving the EU without an accord—suddenly paying tariffs on its exports to its biggest trading partner, for example—it would have to find a legally binding solution.

Both sides quickly committed to avoiding a “hard border” on the island of Ireland. For the EU, this meant no border infrastructure at all, anywhere—no cameras, no checkpoints, nothing. The only way to meet this aspiration was either for the whole of the U.K. (including Northern Ireland) to remain permanently tied to EU rules, therefore negating the need for any border controls because both sides would have the same standards, or for Northern Ireland alone to do so. In effect, the EU would sign a divorce deal with the U.K. only if all or some of it remained tied into the EU’s market. This is the so-called Hotel California exit: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

All of this is a far more radical proposition than is usually admitted, or understood. Essentially, the EU’s position was that it would not deal with the U.K. unless at least a part of it permanently abided by EU rules. Would the EU sign a deal with the United States that forced it to abide by rules made by the U.S. Congress, or would the Senate agree to a treaty that bound, say, Alaska to Canada’s laws? Northern Ireland is more complicated than any of these places and must be dealt with as such, but it is also a sovereign part of the United Kingdom—a position that is still supported by a majority of those who live there.

Britain fought against the EU’s power for a while, only to fold and agree that there would be no “physical infrastructure or related checks and controls” on the island of Ireland, meaning the only place the border could go was within the U.K.—between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The basis of doing this, according to both sides, was to protect the Good Friday Agreement, but the Irish government knew that unionists in Northern Ireland would be against the arrangement. “We just could not believe the British had accepted the text,” one Irish government official told me in 2019, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss diplomatic deliberations. “We knew it would not be acceptable to the unionists. The truth is, Brexit was always going to poison the atmosphere, and it has.” Theresa May, then prime minister, also knew that the border deal would be unacceptable to unionists—they told her as much at the time. Northern Ireland’s unionists, along with a majority of British lawmakers, thrice rejected her deal, forcing her to resign and paving the way for Johnson to become PM on a promise to scrap May’s deal and replace it with a better one. Yet when he took over, he agreed to a deal that made the internal border even harder, further infuriating unionists.

Throughout this whole sorry saga, British officials were perfectly clear that the deals being negotiated were not practically enforceable. By the end, everyone just needed a deal, something that would end the Brexit chaos. In the years that have passed since the agreement was signed, the protocol has never been fully implemented because to do so would be politically intolerable. This is now accepted by both sides in Northern Ireland and by the EU, which has offered a series of reforms to the deal to make it less disruptive to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. One senior figure in Dublin told me that if only the EU had shown such flexibility during the original negotiations, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Northern Ireland has been failed by pretty much everyone in a position of leadership, whether in London, Dublin, Brussels, or any of the other European capitals that failed to take the warnings from unionism seriously. May showed extraordinary weakness, Johnson extraordinary cynicism, and the EU extraordinary political ignorance and inflexibility. Johnson signed on to a deal that he initially said was great but now says is a threat to peace; MPs in the ruling Conservative Party who claim to be unionists and sovereigntists voted for an agreement that split their country and placed a part of it under EU regulatory control; Dublin knew that what it was pushing for would upset the peace settlement; and the EU used its power over the U.K. to impose untenable conditions it would never accept for itself.

Even now, you get the sense that no one is really facing up to the reality of the situation.

Northern Ireland’s unionists are not facing up to the reality that they are almost certainly fighting a losing cause. The British government is seeking not to remove the internal border, only to mitigate its impact. The economic unity of the United Kingdom has twice been sacrificed by Conservative governments to ensure greater freedom for mainland Britain, and it is certainly bunkum to believe that this calculation will suddenly shift.

Governments in Dublin, London, Brussels, Paris, and Berlin are not facing up to the reality either: that this is now a permanent negotiation and shared problem that cannot ever be “solved.” Whenever a new law, regulation, tax change, or trade deal is signed by either the British government or the EU, the economic border that now exists will need to be updated.

The issue cannot be resolved in one sweeping deal, because it is a constantly evolving situation. The more the EU and Britain diverge over time, the harder it will be to limit the impact of the trade border between Northern Ireland and Britain (which is, for practical purposes, the border between Britain and the EU). Because the way this border operates affects the functioning of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, both sides are now locked into a permanent negotiation about customs checks, regulatory equivalence, acceptable levels of risk, and so on.

This is the unavoidable reality of geography, an endless negotiation between neighboring trade partners—an ever-evolving, never-ending Brexit. Given the unique nature of Northern Ireland, such a negotiation requires careful handling, the steady building of trust, a willingness to compromise, and, above all, political nous. If power-sharing is to survive in Northern Ireland, the shifting reality on the ground must remain balanced, and the costs and disruption of Brexit must be shared as equally as possible, regardless of whether people think this is fair. Nothing should be off the table; nothing should be dismissed.

As early as 2017, the former Irish leader Bertie Ahern, who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement with Tony Blair, said that the only solution to the border conundrum would involve an element of looking the other way. The same is true today.

Brexit created a problem that cannot be solved, only managed. The old world was broken, and whether it’s fair or not, both Britain and the EU now own the new one.