Outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May’s failed Brexit plan faced opposition from her party, Parliament, and throughout Europe, but her biggest challenge came from a centuries-old religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland. The same problem awaits the next prime minister, after May steps down at the end of the week, and neither Parliament nor any of the prime ministerial hopefuls have proposed suitable compromises yet.
Unrest in Northern Ireland goes back to the 1530s, when Britain’s King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. The Irish resisted the change and have remained predominantly Catholic with the exception of enclaves of Protestants in Northern Ireland. Those groups have clashed on and off ever since. The Catholic republicans push for a united Ireland, while Protestant unionists remain loyal to the United Kingdom. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in Northern Ireland in the later part of the 20th century, a period known as the “Troubles,” in which more than 3,000 people died in sectarian violence.
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, but trade standards in the European Union allowed an open border between it and the Republic of Ireland. The agreement ended the Troubles, for a time.
“That’s all in jeopardy now because the U.K. is leaving the EU, and that means there could now be a real border, which undermines the Good Friday Agreement,” said Martin Trybus, a professor of law and policy at the Birmingham Law School at the University of Birmingham in England.
To accomplish the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, May proposed the so-called backstop, which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU’s single market. That means people, goods, services, and capital could move freely between Northern Ireland and Ireland—and the rest of the EU. The backstop would also keep the entire United Kingdom in the EU customs union, forcing it to adopt many EU rules on tariffs and trade within and outside of Europe. And it would protect the free flow of goods between Northern Ireland and both Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. But it’s a nonstarter for Brexit supporters—many from May’s own Conservative Party—who say the backstop would keep Britain tied to the EU indefinitely without any say in trade decisions.
Some members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who oppose the backstop also cautioned that applying regulations only to their region could threaten its union with the United Kingdom. The DUP is a part of May’s governing coalition, but its stance does not always reflect the rest of the region. In the 2016 Brexit vote, 55.8 percent of Northern Ireland voters opted to remain in the EU.
The issue is further complicated by the absence of a governing body in Northern Ireland for the past two years. The peace agreement mandates the government include two different political parties, but a disagreement between the DUP and the republican Sinn Fein party in 2017 led to the government’s dissolution, and it has not been reestablished.
“The people voted to stay [in the EU], but the only [members of Parliament] pushing this in Westminster are from the ‘leave’ party, and that’s the problem,” Trybus said.
While politicians debate Brexit endlessly in London, tension and violence are building again in Northern Ireland. A republican group called the New IRA was blamed for a car bombing in January in Londonderry in which no one was injured. But a journalist was shot and killed in riots in Londonderry in April. And this past Saturday, police diffused a bomb left under an officer’s car outside a golf club in Belfast. No one was injured, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland blamed the attempted bombing on “violent dissident republicans,” according to a BBC report.
Since Britain began the chaotic process of leaving the EU in 2016, the British government has received two deadline extensions and Parliament has rejected May’s proposed withdrawal agreement with the bloc three times. After May announced her resignation last month in an emotional speech, her Conservative Party lost its majority in the European Parliament elections, which was a sign of growing discontent. May will continue as the head of a caretaker government until her party chooses a new leader to succeed her as prime minister. The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, emerged with 31 percent of the votes in the European election. Farage had campaigned for Britain to leave the bloc with or without a deal by the EU deadline.
With the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline looming, May’s successor will continue with the same deal that has left many disenchanted with British leadership. Top contenders for the post include former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, a former Brexit secretary, among others.
Amanda Sloat, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged it remains difficult to predict the outcome of Brexit: “One likely scenario is a no-deal prime minister confronting a Parliament that has agreed only on its opposition to a no-deal Brexit, which could trigger a constitutional crisis.”