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Analysis

No deal in sight for the Irish border problem

by Quentin Peel | 12.05.2017

Ireland will be more affected by Brexit than any other EU member – apart from the UK. There will be not only potentially drastic consequences for Irish trade and for the free movement of people but – most alarming of all – for the preservation of peace on what remains a divided island. All sides agree that a key to avoiding such a disaster is to prevent the re-imposition of a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

In a 63-page position paper published last week, the Irish government said that “Brexit presents challenges to our peace and … our prosperity.” It pulled few punches: “The government believes it is bad for Britain, for Europe and for Ireland.”

At the top of the list of priorities set out by Taoiseach Enda Kenny before a meeting of both houses of the Irish parliament this week was to “protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process, including by avoiding a hard border”. But he did not suggest how that could be done.

Kenny was responding to an address by Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator on Brexit, who sought to reassure his audience that nothing in the negotiations “should put peace at risk”. Ireland’s interest, he added, would be the EU’s interest.

Indeed, finding a solution to the border problem was, alongside the rights of EU citizens and the size of the UK exit bill, one of the three priorities for the first phase of negotiations. But Barnier also warned that “customs controls” are an essential part of EU border management. “They protect the single market. They protect our food safety and our standards.” His implication was that if the UK insists on leaving the single market and the customs union, some sort of border would be unavoidable.

When she was in Dublin in January, Theresa May said she wanted to find a solution “which enables us to have as seamless and frictionless a border as possible”. Although she has not been back to Ireland since, and nor has David Davis, her chief negotiator, government officials have been working on how that may be possible. They are looking at digital ways of policing cross-border trade. That might work for big companies, such as Guinness, but will not be effective for thousands of small farmers and family businesses. So far, no workable solutions have seen the light of day.

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The latest Irish paper says the invisible border is “the most tangible symbol of the Peace Process”. There has been free movement of people since Irish independence in 1922, and no customs border since the completion of the EU single market in 1992. Security checkpoints were removed by the Good Friday Agreement in 1999.

“The avoidance of a hard border will require flexibility and creativity on the part of both the UK and the EU…there will need to be a political and not just a technical solution,” it concludes.

It is not clear what Barnier hopes to achieve by including the border question in his first phase of negotiations, before any agreement is reached on the long-term trade relationship between the UK and EU. The need for border controls will be dictated by the trade terms. Another possibility would be to negotiate a special status for Northern Ireland to remain part of the single market or the customs union. That is what Sinn Fein suggests, making it politically unacceptable to the Unionists and most probably the UK government.

The Irish government has set out its base position. Barnier has today gone to see for himself what the border looks like, and to hear first-hand what Dublin wants. Belfast has no devolved administration after the stalemate at the last assembly elections. As for London, there comes only an echoing silence from Downing Street and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Edited by Alex Spillius

2 Responses to “No deal in sight for the Irish border problem”

  • We must have a referendum once the details of a UK exit deal is agreed. (If an agreed deal can ever be achieved by T. May.) She warned of dire consequences today on her Andrew Neil interview. I for one believe her on that!! She is unable to answer questions; except with the same answer over and over. Which didn’t anyway answer the question at all.