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A boardwalk leading to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland near Florencecourt, Northern Ireland. Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters


Brexit affects the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic, has seen May pulled in several directions by different allies. It appears she can’t please all of them, but if any of these players are not satisfied then it could have fatal consequences for her government.

“It’s a perfect storm,” according to Anand Menon, the director of U.K. in a Changing E.U., a research group based at King’s College London.

May’s Conservatives do not have a majority of lawmakers in the British Parliament. She relies on support from a Northern Irish political party to prop up her government and keep her as prime minister.

Her underlying problem is this: Where should the border between a post-Brexit U.K. and the E.U. lie? The British government wants different rules than the E.U. on the free movement of goods and people, and that would require some form of checkpoint.

Between the U.K. and the European continent, the answer is easy: The English Channel provides a distinct, watery boundary separating Britain from France, the Netherlands and Belgium, and beyond them Germany, Spain and Italy.


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But elsewhere things get tricky fast.

Northern Ireland is set to leave the E.U. but the Irish Republic is staying put in the bloc. Their

border is currently all but invisible.

British and Irish officials say they don’t want this to turn into a so-called “hard border” because they fear a return to the sectarian violence known at “The Troubles” that plagued the region during much of the 20th century. It would also mean untangling the pair’s shared rules on everything from healthcare to transport.

So if the prime minister can’t make the Irish border her boundary with the E.U., could she put the border somewhere else?

This question is one of the key areas where Europe is demanding “sufficient progress” before it allows negotiators to move onto the next stage in the talks.

May was hoping to show she had achieved this goal before E.U. leaders met for a crucial summit next week. One senior E.U. diplomat told Reuters it was the “deadline of deadlines.”

On Monday, a draft proposal was leaked suggesting that the Irish problem could be solved by giving Northern Ireland special status with its southern neighbor.

This caused uproar.

That’s because May’s power depends on a relatively small group of lawmakers from the

Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing Northern Irish party more commonly known as the DUP.

Because May lost so much power during elections in June, she needs to keep the DUP happy to help her pass laws and ultimately hold onto power.


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These DUP kingmakers stand against same-sex marriage and oppose lifting the

near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, but more than anything they oppose anything that would weaken the bond between their province and the rest of the U.K. — the clue is in their “Unionist” name.

Special status for Northern Ireland would mean different regulation there and the creation of some sort of border between itself and the rest of the U.K. This is not an option for the unionists.

“Once we saw the text, we knew it was not going to be acceptable,” DUP leader Arlene Foster told Irish broadcaster RTE on Tuesday after the proposal was leaked. She described the news as a “big shock.”

Image: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May

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