Britain Conservatives

Jeremy Hunt (left) and Boris Johnson, seen outside 10 Downing Street, are the final two contenders for leadership of the U.K.’s Conservative Party.

“A united Ireland.” That has been the dream of millions of Irishmen for a century.

Its realization might be approaching — via a surprising route completely unforeseen until recently. What has changed?

In a word — a very strange six-letter neologism: Brexit.

Three years ago on June 24, when 52% of United Kingdom (U.K.) citizens voted “Leave” on the Brexit referendum, all the talk was about the tradeoffs for trade and immigration. Even in Northern Ireland, part of the province of Ulster, virtually nobody anticipated that the Catholic-dominated Republic and the Protestant majority of Northern Ireland might be driven into each other’s arms just because a majority of Northerners preferred membership in the European Union (EU). (Notably, in the North, 55.8% of the vote was to “Remain” in the EU.) Today the 26 counties in the Republic and the six counties of Northern Ireland openly discuss the prospects of unification, fueling nationalist dreams of a “united Ireland.”

So far it is all still dreams — and events are fast-changing. Prime Minister Theresa May officially stepped down on June 7. In the course of the following two weeks, a group of several candidate successors was reduced to a shortlist of two, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. The choice will be put to a ballot by the Conservative Party‘s 160,000 members, which will mark the first time in British history that the selection of a prime minister has been made by a party membership‘s vote. Results will be available during the week of July 22, immediately before parliament recesses on July 25.

Despite all the candidates‘ lavish pledges, will the next prime minister have any more success than May did in negotiating a Brexit from the EU?

Unlikely. The new prime minister will only have a few weeks to maneuver after taking office in August before the Oct. 31 withdrawal deadline. So the ballyhooed “breathing spell” offered by “Brextension” — the April agreement between the EU and the U.K. for a six-month Brexit delay, pushing the withdrawal deadline to (fittingly enough) Halloween — will be largely squandered in the domestic politics of succession.

What all this means for the ultimate future of the U.K. is unknown. May‘s exit proposals, if approved, would have kept the entire U.K. in the customs union, effectively making Britain hostage to the welfare of Ulster — at the dictate of Brussels.

The new prime minister will face this same dictate. Unless Brussels softens its position, Westminster will have only two alternatives: either withdraw with “no deal” or bow to Brussels and obey the edict that any Brexit deal must entail strict border control, impeding the free flow of people and goods.

U.K. negotiations are thus hobbled by the “Ulsterior motives” of the Brussels bureaucrats. That is to say, the U.K. must accommodate the paramount goal of Brussels (and Dublin): no exceptions on custom union membership. If Westminster swallows that pill, it will mean no return to strict border controls, which evokes the decades of low-grade civil war in Northern Ireland, which the 1998 Good Friday Agreement effectively ended.

In other words: no hard border in the province of Ulster between North and South, such as existed during the decades of the so-called Troubles. Even though Brexit will merely impose economic disadvantages — not bring back long automobile queues (and lengthy searches) at crossing points, let alone gun-running and steel fencing or even barbed wire barriers — the mere mention of “border control” evokes memories of the nightmare era of The Troubles.

Westminster’s bow to Brussels’ “Ulsterior motive” would acquiesce to the need to maintain economic and political stability in Ulster. As a result, the only workable plan for a deal that will prevent the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic — which, of course, remains an EU member — seems to be for the North to remain in the EU customs area despite Brexit. That is, even as the rest of Britain “exits” the EU economically, the North remains — and no change in border policy occurs.

And yet, that is no small matter. It would alter the nature of economic transactions between the North and Britain. It would necessarily push the two Irelands toward each other: geography and economics would be aligned, leaving Belfast closer to Dublin than to London. The Irish Republic is adamantly opposed to a hard border, and Brussels officials concur with Dublin fully.

Might Northern Ireland choose to leave the U.K.?

Yes, “NIR-exit” is Westminster‘s next looming crisis.

John Rodden has taught at the University of Virginia and writes often about Irish history. Contact him at jgrodden1@gmail.com.

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