(CN) – Far from the halls of power in London and Brussels, it’s the 310-mile border that meanders through the pastures and hills of Ireland and Northern Ireland that has become a decisive factor in determining how and when Great Britain will exit the European Union.
The fates of millions of people depend on politicians figuring out a way to keep that border, and its more than 200 crossing points, much the same as it is today: Open and free of customs and border checks.
On Tuesday, the British Parliament narrowly approved giving Prime Minister Theresa May another chance to reopen negotiations with the EU over what the future relationship will be between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The Irish border issue has become a major stumbling block for May as she attempts to get her Conservative Party to accept her Brexit deal. Britain is set to leave the EU on March 29.
Under a deal her government agreed on with the EU, Northern Ireland would remain tied to EU customs and market rules until a free trade agreement can be worked out. But that deal was rejected by Parliament in a resounding defeat for May’s government on Jan. 15.
Keeping Northern Ireland tied to the EU is supposed to ensure the border remains free of checkpoints. Ireland and the EU argue that resuming checkpoints could spark violence.
But there’s a huge problem with May’s new ploy to reopen the issue: the EU and Ireland’s government say they’re not open to renegotiating.
“A renegotiation is not on the table,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told the parliament in Dublin, the Dáil, according to RTE, an Irish national broadcaster.
There are many reasons for the Irish government not to budge on this point. Among them is a pledge it’s made to defend the rights of Irish nationalists – those Irish who are Catholics – in Northern Ireland and defend their rights as EU citizens.
There’s another big problem: May’s Tory minority government relies on the support of a Northern Irish party called the Democratic Unionist Party.
The DUP is a socially conservative Protestant party that is pushing for a clear break from the EU and it argues that May’s rejected Brexit deal would leave Northern Ireland effectively separated from the rest of Britain.
The sticking points don’t end there. There are many in Britain, particularly those in favor of Brexit, who say the Northern Irish arrangement would limit Britain’s ability to set its own tariffs and trade rules. A main argument in support of Brexit was that Britain would be free to craft new trade agreements by casting off EU rules.
This camp also insists that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland can remain seamless through the use of technology that tracks goods and people passing back and forth across the border. They argue inspections of animals and foods for sale could take place at the premises of producers.
Critics, though, say there are flaws with these systems and EU officials called this complex streamlined customs system “magical thinking.”
Another option May is reportedly looking at is asking the EU to set a deadline on how long Northern Ireland would have to adhere to EU customs and market rules, an arrangement known as the “backstop” and described as an “insurance plan” to keep the border open in the event that a trade agreement is not hammered out. But the EU is unlikely to accept this.
The Irish News reported on Wednesday that when the “backstop” term first appeared in December 2017, “the expression was only familiar to baseball fans and referred to a protective fence behind the batter.”
That’s certainly not the case any longer. The term has become shorthand for the complexity surrounding the Irish border.
Hanging over all this is a fear that the negotiations will falter, forcing Britain to leave the EU without a deal and resulting in border controls being put back in place.
This prospect has many in Ireland warning that a closed border could reignite sectarian violence. Checkpoints and security towers on the border caused resentment and anger during the region’s bloody conflict, known as the Troubles, and they were frequently attacked.
Over the past weekend, protests were held along the border to warn of the dangers of a return to a so-called “hard border.” One event included protesters setting up a mock checkpoint and dressing as soldiers and customs officials.
One demonstrator, Tom Murray, told the Irish Times that closing the border threatened to bring conflict back.
“All the peace and prosperity that we have enjoyed will be destroyed by a hard border,” he told the newspaper. “Communities could be dragged back into the old days of living in the shadow of someone else’s border.”
Tensions in Northern Ireland over Brexit were heightened on Jan. 19 when a car bomb exploded in Londonderry. Northern Irish police said a militant group called the New IRA was the focus of their investigation, according to Reuters.
But others see the warnings about the return of a closed border as scaremongering tactics and say peace in Ireland will not be threatened regardless of the outcome of Brexit.
In a recent paper for the British think tank Policy Exchange, scholars Ray Bassett and Graham Gudgin said the border issue had “disproportionately dominated” the Brexit negotiations.
“The Irish border is being used as a weapon by Brussels to influence the Brexit negotiations to its advantage,” the scholars wrote.
Politically, though, the situation in Northern Ireland is anything but stable.
For about two years, Northern Ireland’s legislative branch, which meets in the Stormont building in Belfast, has been in limbo and not held sessions.
This happened after a row broke out between Northern Ireland’s two major parties, the republican nationalist Sinn Féin and the unionist DUP. Sinn Féin is demanding that the Irish language be recognized in Northern Ireland and it is seeking to overturn a ban on same-sex marriages. The DUP opposes both.
During the previous decade, the two sides had worked together in a power-sharing government.
Over the past weekend, protesters also showed up at the Stormont building to demand elected officials return to work.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)