‘A dense population in extreme distress inhabits an island’ – that is how Disraeli began to define the Irish Question in the Commons in 1844. Without much hyperbole, it also defines the current state of the UK. Over halfway through the two-year time limit prescribed by article 50, but with no Brexit deal in sight, the Irish Question still resonates: now less about a united independent Ireland, rather more about an independent but divided Britain.
The Irish Republic, whose economy and culture are closer to the UK than any other, is the only EU member state that also shares a land border. Resolving this 310-mile conundrum – maintaining the open border guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement while finessing its position in the EU single market and customs union – has become a fault line between the government in London and EU leaders. The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has ruled out tripartite talks on the issue and rejected Theresa May’s suggestion that customs arrangements on the US-Canada border could provide a post-Brexit model.