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Framing Brexit, the Irish government and the shaping of the Backstop

Patrick Holden, University of Plymouth

As the Brexit stand-off approaches its climax, the prospect of a Northern Ireland only backstop has re-emerged. At this stage it is worth reviewing the origins of this proposal, which has come to dominate the negotiations. I have done a content analysis and framing analysis of the Irish government’s language on Brexit from June 2016 until the phase 1 agreement at the end of December 2017, the results of which are published in Political Geography. This post summarises the major findings as they relate to current controversies and ongoing debates about Brexit. It analyses the link between Irish and broader EU discourses on Brexit and also challenges specific myths, particularly the popular misconception in the UK that Leo Varadkar’s government approached Brexit in a radically different way to Enda Kenny’s.


The paper was inspired by the connection between the generic trade tensions of Brexit – the UK’s desire to leave the Single Market and Customs Union – and the very particular political situation on the island of Ireland. As the only land border of the UK with the EU (excluding Gibraltar) the border was where the abstract idea of free trade held by many Brexiters would be put to the test (and fail). Leave proponents tended to imagine a ‘post-geography’ trading world where free trade emerges once ‘protectionist rackets’ like the EU are overcome. However, the reality is very different and the global trading system is still based on states managing their borders and bargaining down their protective measures to offer ‘market access’. Inside or outside the EU, ‘global free trade’ is not on the cards. The Brexit conundrum linked the geoeconomics of future UK-EU trade with the specific concerns of Ireland and the latent geopolitics of Irish-UK relations. (As such it combined obscure technical details of trade and economic integration with intensely emotional and political issues). Additionally the unfolding of the Brexit debate struck me as a textbook example of political framing; who would ‘put a border in’ for example? Trade experts would generally agree that it was the UK by instigating Brexit (and a hard Brexit at that) that was ‘putting a border in’ but the complexity of the issues meant that much was up for grabs in terms of the public framing of the process.


The paper conducts an elementary content analysis of the language used by Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar’s governments over the time period in question. (This is based on 74 speeches, documents and media interviews from June 2016 to December 2017) It follows this up with a more qualitative analysis of how they framed the issues, relating this to the broader economic power relations and the politics of the negotiation.


The alignment between the Irish and the broader EU did not crystallise immediately. For example, in his first statement Kenny expressed hopes that the talks on future trade arrangements could take in parallel with the withdrawal talks (a position more favourable to London than what emerged). However, as the UK’s position became clear and it was equally clear that the EU was forming a tough and unyielding approach (above all in refusing to negotiate before the UK government triggered the Article 50 countdown) the Irish government fell in to line with this. (All of this is well illustrated in Tony Connelly’s seminal book). The Irish government’s language was very careful, avoiding nationalist tropes (not even using the word ‘partition’ once, for example). It did not take a maximalist position that the Good Friday Agreement did not allow Northern Ireland to be taken out of the EU without its consent (as argued by Brendan O’Leary here). However it was unyielding on the principle that a hard border (beyond the existing economic and political divisions) would not be accepted. This was as true of Kenny as Varadkar. It was after all Kenny that insisted on a European Council declaration making explicit Northern Ireland’s ability to rejoin the EU via reunification. The real watershed in the Irish position on the Brexit negotiations was the hardline position taken by Theresa May’s government to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and initially at least to reject any common European laws. This made a border, ceteris paribus, inevitable and Kenny’s speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs (Febuary 2017) shortly after May’s Lancaster House speech is analysed in detail in the article. It is a speech that invokes a sense of crisis and threat and is in some respects stronger than anything Varadkar said. Kenny’s government succeeded in putting Northern Ireland as a stage 1 issue, forcing the UK to confront it before it could go on to the broader talks (including the future economic relationship).


Fig. 1. Content analysis of the language used by Irish leaders in relation to the Irish border in 2016/2017.

The generic content analysis did not find a significant difference in how Varadkar’s government approached the Brexit process, apart from a slight increase in more emotional language. The latter was more direct in referring to the power Ireland has, in delineating the contractions of the UK’s position and there are also differences in accent, tone of voice and demeanour (harder to systematically analyse) which may explain why he has invoked such strong reactions in the UK press. The policy pursued was a logical unfolding of that established by Kenny’s government but, of course, the negotiations only really got going after Varadkar took office and the ‘political heat’ was bound to increase considerably then.


The proposal for a Northern Ireland backstop was radical in the context of all-island politics and Anglo-Irish relations. (The Irish government has been loath to say anything that could arouse Unionist anxieties about NI’s place in the UK). Athough there are some elements of nationalist discourse the overwhelming message from the Irish government was that it was not claiming Northern Ireland for Ireland but protecting it from the Brexit break-up. This was not about a United Ireland but an all-island socio-economic space. The ‘four green fields’ of historical Irish nationalist discourse have been replaced by the ‘four freedoms’ of the European Union. It is an overwhelmingly liberal discourse, defending international law and the benefits of European cooperation/integration. They secured at the end of this phase a strong commitment from the UK government not just to avoid customs and border posts but to “ maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy …” (article 49). This is a commitment that the UK has since tried to retreat from since but it has shaped the overall negotiation. Recent ideas floated from the UK about an all-island agricultural space do not measure up to the 2017 assurance (although they do represent a symbolic advance on the principle of differentiating Northern Ireland from the UK, especially if – as reports suggest – they are supported by the Democratic Unionist Party).


Since December 2017 the negotiations and the political eruptions in the UK have developed considerably but the overall negotiation remains within the framework forged by the Irish government and the EU in the crucial first 18 months. From the Irish government’s perspective its crucial success was the conjoining of its concerns regarding Northern Ireland with the broader EU’s political and economic interests. Geography itself became a key factor here (symbolised by the frequent visits to the Irish border of politicians on one side of the debate), the Irish border was where the abstract neoliberal trade ideals of the Brexiteers were confronted, and the real trade-offs presented to the UK. However, a no-deal scenario would threaten this harmony as the EU will require Ireland to protect the Single Market and (should the scenario persist) a ‘hard economic border’ would surely emerge. The framing of Brexit remains contested and this will only intensify in a no-deal situation. The question of “who is doing what to whom” will be at the heart of the struggle for public opinion.

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