Brexit adds to Northern Ireland’s broken politics

Floral tributes for journalist Lyra McKee, whose death the New IRA claimed responsibility for. | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

The main achievement of the Good Friday Agreement — the creation of power-sharing institutions — is not just unwell, but perhaps terminally ill.

Like few places on earth, Northern Ireland lives its history.

It is everywhere — on street signs, radio phone-ins, murals and marches. Like poisonous gas, it is inescapable: directing daily life. It determines whom you vote for, what sport you play, which part of the city you live in.

Stay at the multimillion pound Radisson Blu hotel in downtown Belfast and an Irish tricolor can be seen, stuck in a window of a flat in the “Markets” area — an Irish Catholic ghetto surrounded by Britishness and a derelict patch of grass. On the other side of the hotel, five minutes from the Markets, a giant Union flag mural welcomes (warns) visitors that they are entering the loyalist Donegall Pass area of town.

It is a society like no other in Western Europe. Different rules apply. Politically, it is more Balkan than British or Irish.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement recognized this reality and sought a political system that could be all things to all people. Power was shared, with vetoes for both communities. The union with Great Britain maintained — even strengthened politically — but all-Ireland institutions created and nationalist rights guaranteed.

It created a land where you could be Irish or British — or both. You could shop on one side of the border and use the free NHS on the other.

It did not, however, change the fundamentals.

“Politics here are…

No-deal Brexit would mean hard Irish border, EU confirms

A lorry crosses the border in Newry, Northern Ireland

The EU has put further pressure on the Brexit talks by confirming it will enforce a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event of a no-deal outcome, despite the risk this would pose to peace.

In comments that proved highly uncomfortable for Dublin, the chief spokesman for Jean-Claude Juncker the European commission president, told reporters in Brussels it was “pretty obvious” border infrastructure would be necessary if the UK were to leave without an agreement.

The Irish and British governments have been wary of speculating about the repercussions of the UK leaving the EU with no deal in place.

Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, was caught on tape last week indicating his fellow ministers should not talk about the resumption of border checks publicly for fear of a backlash.

In a private conversation, he told the Irish transport minister, Shane Ross, “once you start talking about checks anywhere near the border, people will start delving into that and all of a sudden we’ll be the government that reintroduced a physical border on the island of Ireland”.

But the Juncker’s spokesman said on Tuesday the likely enforcement of border checks could not be avoided.

“If you were to push me to speculate on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it is pretty obvious you will have a hard border, and our commitments to the Good Friday agreement and everything we have been doing for years with our tools, instruments and programmes will have to take inevitably into account this fact,” he said.

“So of course we are for peace. Of course we stand behind the Good Friday agreement, but that is what no-deal would entail.”

How four different customs union options led to the Irish border backstop compromise


customs union

Red line for May

No need for Irish

border checks


customs union

Red line for DUP

No need for Irish

border checks, but checks needed on goods moving between NI and the UK


in the

Irish sea

UK-NI customs union (soft border)

Red line for Brussels

Lack of checks on Irish border leaves a back door to the EU single market

UK-NI customs union (hard border)

Red line for Dublin

Hard border to preserve integrity of EU single market contravenes Good Friday agreement


customs union

Red line for May

No need for Irish

border checks


customs union

Red line for DUP


‘Aren’t you going insane?’: readers’ questions from beyond Brexitland

Jigsaw puzzle displaying European map missing Great Britain

Having asked those of you living outside the UK if you were confused by the latest news from Brexitland, I got so many responses (thank you all) that I have grouped and paraphrased the most common ones so as to be able answer, at least approximately, as many as possible.

And I’ve mostly stuck to factual questions on the Brexit process. “Will Brexit finally teach Britain it no longer rules the world?” from (among others) Steve Norman in Canada, Ferdy in Dublin and Thijs in the Netherlands, warrants a book-length response, but not now.

Also, I’m not going into great detail explaining Brexit terminology: if you want answers to that I recommend the Guardian’s handy Brexit phrasebook which hopefully has most of it covered.

What are the ground rules of Brexit? I’m seriously confused (Danni, US)

Brexit is the process of the UK leaving the EU, which it narrowly voted in favour of in a referendum in June 2016. The process is governed by article 50 of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon and is happening in two stages: first, the two sides negotiate their divorce deal (the “withdrawal agreement”), and after this they will sort out their future trading relationship. It’s proving problematic because the UK voted for a departure but not a destination: some think Britain should remain in a close relationship with the EU, with privileged access to its vast single market but having to obey its rules; others think its should strike out on its own, with greater control but less smooth trade. It’s complicated by the red lines set down by the prime minister, Theresa May, (ending the automatic right of EU citizens to settle in the UK, and leaving the EU’s single market and customs union) which exclude a lot of potential options.

Can you explain the Irish backstop? (Diane Dalton, US, with related questions from Ton Pasman and Leonie, Netherlands; Shona, Ireland; Dietmar Homberg, Germany; Elisabeth Sanfuchs, Belgium; Ayaz Ramji, Canada)

When the UK leaves the EU, the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland, which is currently invisible, will become the EU’s only land border with the UK. Such a border normally requires customs and other controls. Nobody wants that, partly because nobody wants a return to the violence of the period before the Good Friday agreement, which removed border checks. In theory, the post-Brexit trading arrangements between the EU and the UK will avoid a “hard” border, but they could take years to negotiate so the EU has insisted on a “backstop” guaranteeing the absence of a hard border until those arrangements are in place. The backstop leaves the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” the EU agrees it can leave. Brexiters do not like this at all.

Why is the deadline 29 March 2019 and what’s the problem with extending it? (Dawn, Canada; Jean Vigoureux, France)

Article 50 provides for two years of talks; the UK triggered it on 29 March 2017 so in principle it leaves automatically two years later. It can ask the EU27 for an extension, which they have said they would grant for a valid reason, such as sorting out the final details of a deal that has the support of a majority in the UK parliament. This now looks quite likely, but it may only last for a few months because a new European parliament is sworn in in July and EU rules require all member states to be represented – a problem if the UK is still a member. Experts think this could be resolved with a temporary fix, but the EU would rather avoid the hassle.

Can article 50 be revoked and how would the EU respond? (Benjamin Willumsen, Chile)

The European court of justice has ruled that the UK can revoke article 50 unilaterally at any time without the permission of the EU27 (who would…

May loses grip on Brexit deal after fresh Commons humiliation

Theresa May

Theresa May’s room for manoeuvre should her Brexit deal be rejected next week was further constrained on Wednesday night, after the government lost a second dramatic parliamentary showdown in as many days.

An increasingly boxed-in prime minister must now set out her plan B within three working days of a defeat next Tuesday, after the rebel amendment passed.

There were furious scenes in the House of Commons as the Speaker, John Bercow, took the controversial decision to allow a vote on the amendment, tabled by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

A string of MPs, including the leader of the house, Andrea Leadsom, repeatedly intervened to question the Speaker’s approach. Some accused him of being biased against Brexit.

But parliament went on to back Grieve as the prime minister was defied by Conservative rebels determined to hand control of the Brexit process to MPs if next week’s vote is lost.

The fresh defeat, which followed a separate backbench amendment to the finance bill on Tuesday, means the government will have to return to parliament swiftly with a plan.

An accelerated timetable will also pile the pressure on Labour to move quickly. The motion setting out the government’s plan can be amended by MPs hoping to push their own alternative proposals, from a second referendum to a harder Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s party will have to decide which to back.

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, on Wednesday became the most senior Labour figure to suggest that the article 50 process might have to be extended, if the deadlock in parliament could not be broken.

He told MPs: “There is a question of the extension of article 50, which may well be inevitable now, given the position that we are in, but of course we can only seek it, because the other 27 [EU members] have to agree.”

Quick guide

Why extend the Brexit transition period?

Will the proposal solve anything?

The mooted extension to the transition period is a new idea being put forward by the EU to help Theresa May square the circle created by the written agreement last December and the draft withdrawal agreement in March.

That committed the UK and the EU to ensuring there was no divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

But it also, after an intervention by the Democratic Unionist party, committed the UK (not the EU) not to have any trading differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The problem is that these are two irreconcilable agreements. They also impinge on the legally binding Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland and in some senses pooled sovereignty of Northern Ireland giving people a birthright to be Irish or British or both.

If the UK leaves the EU along with the customs union and the single market then the border in Ireland becomes the only land border between the UK and the EU forcing customs, tax and regulatory controls.

The backstop is one of three options agreed by the EU and the UK in December and would only come into play if option A (overall agreement) or option B (a tailor-made solution) cannot be agreed by the end of transition. The Irish have likened it to an insurance policy.

The new EU idea is to extend the transition period to allow time to get to option A or B.

But an extension is problematic for Brexiters and leave voters, who want the UK to get out of the EU as soon as possible.

The Irish and the EU will also still need the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, which must be signed before the business of the trade deal…

The DUP is exposed, clinging to pathetic ‘No surrender’ politics

It seems like no time ago that the DUP’s Sammy Wilson was loudly advising the British that “the blackmailing burghers from Brussels” and the “cheap political opportunists” from Dublin must be met with a “tough” response during the Brexit negotiations. “If the gloves are off it is time we went into the fray with a no surrender attitude,” he declared.

Ian Paisley jnr likewise told the then Brexit minister that what was needed was to shout “No surrender” at the EU. “Stand up to them, man,” he instructed. Thus would the steadfast men of Ulster see off the foreign enemy, and the traitors, and restore the empire to its former glory.

That was back in spring, when the party was buoyant. The prime minister had bought its 10 parliamentary votes and, in defiance of her responsibilities to the Belfast Agreement, was acting as if the DUP was the one-party government of Northern Ireland. On demand she would murmur sweet words about her dedication to “our precious, precious union”. Just like the old days, when Ulster was the “Imperial Province”.

When Edward Carson armed a militia to resist Home Rule in 1912, the leader of the British Conservative Party, Bonar Law, promised his support. He told the Ulster Volunteer Force: “Once again you hold the pass, the pass for the empire. You are a besieged city. The timid have left you; your Lundys have betrayed you; but you have closed your gates.” He was referring, of course, to the siege of Derry in 1689, when the Protestant apprentice boys shut the gates of the walled city against the Catholic forces of King James. Lundy was the pragmatic governor who, having failed to convince them they should negotiate and compromise, scarpered.

I grew up hearing indignant voices in my community protesting that unionist leaders, faced with the civil rights movement and then the IRA, were poised to “sell us down the river”.

During a political crisis in the 1990s, I remember asking the late David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, if he would respond to some…

UK politics – as it happened: Conservatives turn on Boris Johnson over Brexit ‘suicide vest’ jibe at Theresa May

Boris Johnson has faced a backlash from Tory colleagues after his “disgusting” criticism of Theresa May’s Brexit blueprint sparked an explosive public row.

Senior Conservatives denounced the former foreign secretary for comparing the prime minister’s Chequers plan to having “wrapped a suicide vest” around Britain and handed the detonator to Brussels.

It also comes as a former Brexit minister warned Ms May that she has until the Conservatives’ annual conference later this month to drop her Chequers plan or face a “catastrophic split” in the party.

Elsewhere, Jeremy Corbyn faced an angry meeting of his parliamentary party, where the Labour leader was expected to endure recriminations over the party’s antisemitism row.

See below for live updates

Live Updates

Internal divisions in the Conservative Party have exploded into a bitter public row over Boris Johnson’s “disgusting” criticism of Theresa May.

Some senior Tories furiously denounced the former foreign secretary after he accused the prime minister of having ”wrapped a suicide vest” around Britain.

More here:

Open warfare between top Tories over Boris Johnson ‘suicide vest’ jibe at May

A former Brexit minister has warned Theresa May she has until the Conservatives’ annual conference later this month to drop her Chequers plan or face a “catastrophic split” in the party.

Steve Baker, one of the leading Tory Eurosceptics, said Ms May faced “a massive problem” because Conservative party members do not support her Brexit blueprint.

He said at least 80 Tory MPs could vote against the plan.

More here:

Justice Secretary David Gauke urged Tories to rally behind Theresa May’s Chequers plan in the face of warnings of a “catastrophic split” in party ranks.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is an overwhelming majority within the Conservative Party that we respect the referendum result, that we implement it in such a way as to respect the integrity of the United Kingdom and the Good Friday Agreement and ensure that we are in a strong position to grow the economy in the years ahead.

“There isn’t an alternative credible plan out there. I think that it is absolutely right that the cabinet and the parliamentary party backs the prime minister. In challenging circumstances she is the right person to deliver the right deal for this country.”

Tory former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan condemned Boris Johnson’s comments on the Chequers plan.

She told the Today programme: “Language was clearly inappropriate – completely appalling. Alistair Burt (foreign office minister) has made clear that all of us in public life should think very carefully about the language we use.

“Boris has to make a decision and I think he’s sort of made it. He’s either a journalist or a he is a politician.

“He knew exactly what he was doing using that language… this is the second time now he has chosen deliberately, incendiary language which masks the ability to debate the issues.”

She said the Chequers plan was “very welcome” and the “vast majority” of people in the Tory party and the country at large want an ongoing trading relationship with the EU.

Ms Morgan added: “This is a matter of national interest. We have Leave MPs in the Labour Party like we have Remain MPs in the Conservative Party. Surely the public want politicians to work together on this matter of national interest.”

She rejected suggestions she would quit if Boris Johnson became leader, adding: “I have been in the Conservative Party for the best part of 30 years. I am not going anywhere.”

Controversial proposals to cut the number of parliamentary seats by 50 are set to be published later today.

The Boundary Commission will set out which of the 650 UK constituencies should be scrapped, in an attempt to create areas with a similar number of voters.

The proposed number of seats for the next election are:

  • England: 501 (from 533)
  • Scotland: 53 (from 59)
  • Wales: 29 (from 40)
  • Northern Ireland: 17 (from 18)

Ministers must secure the support of parliament to push through the plans but many Tories, along with Labour, are opposed to the move.

Boris Johnson has put pressure on Theresa May on a different front, by calling on the government to follow Donald Trump’s example and slash taxes.

Writing in the Telegraph, the ex-foreign secretary – who provoked an outcry by comparing the PM’s Brexit strategy to a…

Northern Ireland secretary ‘doesn’t understand’ regional politics

Karen Bradley was named secretary of state for Northern Ireland in January [File: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images]
Karen Bradley was named secretary of state for Northern Ireland in January [File: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images]

The UK’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland has come under fire after admitting that she lacked a basic understanding of the region’s politics when she took on the role earlier this year.

In an interview to The House, a magazine for the UK Houses of Parliament, Karen Bradley acknowledged that she “didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland”, including that “people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa”.

Northern Ireland, which has been riven with sectarian tensions for generations, has been without a power-sharing executive – a key part of a 1998 peace deal – for 20 months.

Its government collapsed in January 2017 in the wake of a financial scandal involving the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, resigned in protest and subsequent elections saw his Irish nationalists Sinn Fein party almost win power.

Talks to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly at the Stormont Estate near Belfast have since stalled, and the political deadlock recently saw Northern Ireland overtaking Belgium’s 589-day record of being without an elected government.

As the UK government’s ranking official on issues related to Northern Ireland, Bradley has been tasked with leading the efforts to restore power-sharing to the region. She replaced James Brokenshire in January and inherited a litany of problems, including ending the political stalemate and the future of the Irish-UK border.

On Friday, politicians in Northern Ireland reacted with dismay to Bradley’s published remarks, accusing her of adding to the troubled atmosphere of the region’s politics.

“We are not surprised that a British government minister did not understand the intricacies of politics here in the North,” Colum Eastwood, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, told Al Jazeera.

“The British and Irish governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, need to meet urgently to agree a package of legislation to get Stormont back up and running. We cannot continue in this political…