Theresa May at the December summit. Via Flickr.
There have been darker moments in British-Irish relations over the last century. Yet it's hard to think of a time when the Irish question has been such a complex factor in British politics. Not perhaps since the clashes between home rulers in the Commons and Unionists in the Lords chronicled in George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England.
It is a remarkably many-sided conundrum. The Conservatives are dependent on DUP support at Westminster. They nevertheless need to cajole them into an executive with Sinn Féin at Stormont. The urgency of avoiding direct rule is all the greater because of the same Brexit timetable which raises the premium on DUP parliamentary votes. To cap it all, the DUP and their Tory brexiteer allies have to be kept on board while a deal on the border is negotiated with the EU and the Irish Government.
A key point in that exercise will come next week, when the FT reports that the European Commission will table text formalising last December's Withdrawal Agreement.
Some UK ministers (Mr Johnson and environment secretary Michael Gove) believe technology and trusted trader schemes can be used to avoid the emergence of a hard border. But the view in Dublin and Brussels is that these are insufficient to avoid customs controls.
If Dublin and Brussels maintain this stance, then Mrs May will be forced to abide by the agreement she signed in December that Northern Ireland will remain in full regulatory alignment with the Irish Republic.
The Wall Street Journal's Simon Nixon reports that there is every sign that the EU and Ireland are sticking to their guns, and will demand strong guarantees on regulatory alignment.
Denis Staunton of the Irish Times concurs, and warns of destabilising consequences at Westminster:
Officials in London fear that a text that clarifies the meaning of Britain’s promise to ensure regulatory alignment between North and South will have an explosive impact on the cabinet’s internal debate – and on May’s allies in the DUP.
Bloomberg's Tim Ross and Alex Morales report that the cracks have already appeared:
Intense talks among May’s most senior Brexit ministers last week failed to reach agreement on the kind of future trade deal Britain will have, with the Irish border question a key point of division, officials said.
May's talks with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week suggest how she will attempt to manage the problem. The two premiers agreed to focus on solving the Irish border problem through the future relationship between the UK and EU, rather than through the specific regulatory alignment deal.
That holds out the prospect to Brexiters of an eventual outcome that is more to their liking. Yet the EU will retain regulatory alignment as a backstop option, and are only likely to give it up if the future relationship is relatively close. Indeed, it was the future relationship option that EU negotiator Michel Barnier was specifically referring to, when he said last week that an open border would need Britain to remain in the single market and customs union.
If May baulks at the withdrawal text under pressure from her party, the EU has every incentive to stand firm, and rely on the pressure of time and a soft-Brexit parliamentary majority to take its toll.
If she accepts a withdrawal deal on current lines, and hard Brexiters demur, she could end up relying on opposition votes to deliver it, weakening her position in her party. A recent piece by the Guardian's Polly Toynbee suggests that Labour has already gamed out these possibilities.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, says: “No one has explained how the border commitments can be kept unless a customs union with the EU is on the negotiating table and the final deal delivers the benefits of the single market.” Never mind the finessed language, watch that turn into a resounding Labour vote when the crunch comes, as Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke rally Tory rebels.
Indeed, the hard Brexiters might be tempted to mount a leadership challenge to snatch control of the process. If they can get the numbers to win one of the two nominations controlled by the parliamentary party, there is every chance that the dwindling but hardline conservative membership in the country would hand them the premiership. That would risk leaving the UK with a weak but hardline government, presiding over a disorderly Brexit. There would then no doubt be pressure for a general election, an acute dilemma for Tory moderates, in particular.
If on the other hand, Theresa May is able to string along the hardliners as she did in December, the Irish border may keep Britain on course for a soft Brexit.