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Northern Ireland - What's The Issue?

Northern Ireland - What's The Issue?

Despite only being Monday, it’s proving to be a busy week for Brexit, with the Prime Minister facing a frantic 48 hours to save her Brexit plan as talks once again stall.

Theresa May appeared in front of MPs for an hour and 40 minutes, in a hastily scheduled statement in which she was bombarded with questions involving her progress. The Labour leader said clearly that: “For too long, this country has been held hostage to those in her party who want to drive through a race-to-the-bottom Brexit.” 

He continued - “it is clear that the Prime Minister’s failure to stand up to the warring factions of her side had led to this impasse.”

The impasse to which Jeremy Corbyn is referring is Northern Ireland. 

In days gone by, Northern Ireland was the destination for government ministers out-of-favour. Jim Prior was ‘reshuffled’ to Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1981 from Secretary of State for Employment after conflicting with Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist policies. 

But today, Northern Ireland - in particular 10 DUP MPs seem to be holding the balance of power, throwing a major border-shaped spanner in the works. 

Central to the Theresa May’s issue, the EU’s insistence that Northern Ireland becomes a backstop with Customs Union access for goods after the rest of Britain leaves the EU. 

The EU argue that this is the only way to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Southern Republic, and crucially protect the Good Friday Agreement. 

However, the Prime Minister declared confidently this afternoon to the Commons that she “cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom.” And for her, that means that she needs to ensure the proposed backstop is a “temporary customs arrangement”. 

In reality, Theresa May’s long-term concern for the ‘the integrity’ of the UK, is also a cover for the short-term goal of holding her Conservative government together. This is, after all, a government relying on the backing of 10 DUP MPs for survival. 

For Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, any divergence between the type of Brexit Northern Ireland receives from the rest of the UK is simply unacceptable. 

The solution, keeping the the whole of the UK in the Customs Union, is however simply unacceptable to hardline Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, David Davis and Michael Gove. 

Theresa May therefore finds herself between a rock and hard place, with virtually no time find a way out. 

On Wednesday May heads to Brussels for a critical two-day European summit where other EU leaders will decide if sufficient progress is being made. The outcome will be a decision by other EU leaders over whether or not to hold a concluding summit in November, and whether to abandon plans for the North Ireland backstop. 

In further bad news for the Prime Minister, Donald Tusk has warned that this impasse once again raises the stakes of a ‘no deal’ Brexit - making it ‘more likely than ever before’. This comes after Dominic Raab, Brexit Secretary, went to Brussels to reassure Mr Tusk of the government’s progress. He returned after an hour with no agreement to finalise arrangements on Northern Ireland. 

Additionally, the confidence with which the Prime Minister spoke at the dispatch box was rejected by Angela Merkel. Merkel spoke of the growing difficulties in striking a Brexit deal. She did however give the Prime Minister some hope, calling for ‘finesse’ and continued negotiating. 

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