Professor Feargal Cochrane provides expert comment on Irish border Brexit negotiations

As negotiators appear to have failed to achieve a breakthrough on the Irish border in the Brexit negotiations, Professor Feargal Cochrane, Professor of International Conflict Analysis at Kent’s School of Politics and International Relations, says that ‘no backstop, no deal and no transition period could have potentially vast political and economic implications for Ireland, the UK, Northern Ireland and the EU.’

‘Most of the energy as we reach the end point of the negotiations seems to be going into developing a form of ‘constructive ambiguity’ over the phrasing of the eventual Withdrawal Agreement. This has been a feature of British diplomatic statecraft for some time and essentially requires drafting of text that can be read in different ways to allow progress to be made, without absolute certainty over the ultimate destination.

‘However, this is going to be tricky to engineer in the Brexit context, as the negotiations have sucked trust out of the process to the point that nearly all sides want legal clarity now, rather than ambiguity.

‘Theresa May has a choice between three options. She can agree to full regulatory alignment within Ireland – with the result being some form of border controls in the Irish Sea. Her second option is a mechanism that would align the whole of the UK with the Customs Union, effectively dragging GB back in, when the UK formally leaves the EU in March 2019.

‘Both of these two options are versions of what is popularly known as ‘the backstop’.

‘The third option is to have no backstop, no deal and no transition period. This would be an interesting position for everyone, as much would depend then on how that would be operationalised by all sides. But its political and economic implications for Ireland, the UK, Northern Ireland and the EU would be potentially vast.

‘The reality of the options on the table is causing the government to leak oil now at a considerable rate, losing Transport Secretary Jo Johnston at the end of last week, and enraging the DUP with the suggestion that a border in the Irish Sea might be written into the Withdrawal Agreement after all, having previously said that this wouldn’t be countenanced by the British government.

‘It now seems that Theresa May is suggesting that this option might be written into the Withdrawal Agreement by the EU, even though it remains unacceptable to her – a distinction that is clearly of little reassurance to the DUP.  One of the reasons is that they know their history – as does everyone in Ireland and the historical parallels are becoming ever more clear.

‘She may conclude that her best chance of getting a Brexit deal through parliamentis by opting for/conceding to backstop option number one, with border controls in the Irish Sea – rather than dragging Team GB back into the Customs Union and enraging more Brexiteers in her party. Either way, the outcome is likely to be politically difficult for the government with the DUP and/or Brexiteers in her party crying foul.’

Professor Feargal Cochrane is vice chair of the Political Studies Association and Professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. He is director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre and deputy head of the School of Politics and International Relations at Kent. His current research is examining the impact of Brexit on the peace process in Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions.