Expert View

Here’s what keeping the Irish border open really means

by Martin Donnelly | 31.05.2018

Martin Donnelly was Permanent Secretary for the Department of International Trade until last year.

It is worth reminding ourselves what the Irish border issue really means for the people living along that border, from Derry/Donegal to Fermanagh/Cavan to Newry/Dundalk.

There are more than 200 crossing points over several hundred miles of border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Thanks to the EU’s single market and customs union there has been free movement of goods and services, people and investment across the border regions for over two decades. Meanwhile the customs posts have rusted to relics of a less happy time.

The 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is an international treaty between the UK and the Republic of Ireland which sets a new framework for “friendly neighbours” to cooperate, with the explicit support of the EU, in maintaining that openness. As a result a structure of North-South cooperation has for two decades worked to the mutual benefit of citizens on both sides of the border.

Last December the UK committed again to protecting North-South cooperation, and if necessary to maintain “full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union which, now or in the future support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” (see article 49).

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Let us be clear that is not just, or even mostly, about keeping the same customs rules. It is about the cohesion and sustainability of the wider economy and society on both sides of the Irish border. Making sure that buses run between border communities; that schools, hospitals and pharmacies offer cross-border services; that hairdressers, plumbers or architects can work in both North and South; that milk, chickens, cows and pigs cross and recross the border freely as they are processed; and that sandwiches made in Newry can be transported and sold all over Ireland while they are still fresh.

Delivering this needs some very specific agreements. The same EU regulations on bus and lorry driver training and safety, on drugs, on doctors’ or midwives’ qualifications, on professional services – all have to apply equally on both sides of the border. The same agricultural health regime has to be applied in the same way.

And all the single market rules that support cross-border commerce today have to stay in place tomorrow, and next year and the year after that. That includes any new EU rules on, for example, digital commerce. This will apply unless and until some alternative that provides exactly the same freedoms can be agreed by both governments, and therefore by the rest of the EU, of which Ireland will remain a member.

World trade rules, or indeed the capacity of technology, have nothing to do with this open border. What matters is the shared political and legal commitments made by the British government and the 27 EU member states to keep the border as open as it is now, whatever else changes. We have given our word.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “Here’s what keeping the Irish border open really means”

  • @Chris Mercer
    The silly picture is of no importance. Martin Donnelly”s message is. The essence of the Good Friday Agreement was that on one hand Irish republicanism accepted that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK unless and until its electorate decided otherwise and on the other hand Ireland would to the greatest extent possible consistent with that commitment be run as if it was a united entity. This has indeed happened during the last 20 years including for example north-south electricity connection which is now ready to go ahead.

    Joint EU membership was a vital element in delivering that historic bargain. In my view the Good Friday Agreement, entrenched by huge majorities on both sides of the border and registered at the UN as an international treaty, in effect denies either the UK or Ireland the right unilaterally to leave the European Union.