Brexit talks: why the UK-Irish border is so contentious

Paul Faith, AFP | Traffic crosses the border into Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic on December 1, 2017.

Ireland and the thorny issue of the future of its north-south border after the UK leaves the EU is emerging as one of the key sticking points in the Brexit negotiations. But why is the UK-Irish frontier so contentious?


"The key to the UK's future lies in some ways in Dublin, at least as long as the Brexit negotiations continue," said European Council President Donald Tusk Friday after meeting the Irish leader in Dublin to discuss Brexit.

On Monday, that appeared to be true once again after the UK and the EU failed to reach an agreement during a crunch Brexit meeting in Brussels. One of the key issues at the heart of these talks was the fate of the Irish-UK border, which is proving to be one of the biggest obstacles to progress in the Brexit negotiations.

Reaching a UK-EU concensus on citizens’ rights, the cost of a divorce bill and the UK-Irish border were a prerequisite for taking today’s talks to the next stage and discussing future trade relations at a summit later on this month.

The UK’s only land frontier with the EU

The largely invisible border dividing the island of Ireland into the Republic of Ireland (which, of course, is remaining in the European Union) and Northern Ireland is made up of over 200 crossings meandering over around 300 miles. Any physical manifestation of what is the UK’s only land frontier with another EU country was abolished in 1998 after the Good Friday Peace agreement, which ended years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

On both sides of the border, people worry that the return to a hard border could threaten peace. "The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is no longer a symbol of division, it is a symbol of cooperation. And we cannot allow Brexit to destroy this achievement of the Good Friday Agreement," Tusk said on Friday.

The peace deal is intricately entwined with the EU, the UK’s former Europe minister Denis MacShane told France 24. “In the Good Friday peace accord there are about 140 technical points which involve EU rules and regulation,” he explained. “Peace can be thrown out of the window if we reintroduce British checkpoints across the border.”

How could typical border activities be avoided?

Among the UK's four regions, the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. In addition, most people on the island want the border to remain as it is: an invisible line allowing the free movement of goods and people. They want answers on how typical border activities – such as passport checks, customs checks and tariffs – could be avoided once Britain leaves the EU and the single market and customs union in March 2019.

Any changes that hamper movement across the border could have a huge impact on trade. This and the issue of ‘regulatory alignment’ loom large.

"If you have different standards in terms of food safety, animal welfare, animal health, if you have different standards in relation to medical devices and the approval of drugs, how then can you maintain practical north/south co-operation as we have it today?" Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told the BBC on Monday.

An answer to this question was partly given in Brussels. In a last-minute turnaround just hours before the Monday meeting, the UK conceded to EU negotiators that the rules covering the EU single market and customs union on the island of Ireland after Brexit would be the same and that the border would remain largely as it is today.

“In the absence of agreed solutions the UK will ensure that there continues to be no divergence from those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North South cooperation and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement,” a leaked draft agreement obtained by the Irish public broadcasted RTE is reported to have said.

Observers however wonder how such a deal might work in practice and if the model might be applied elsewhere. On Twitter, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reacted to the report by saying there was "surely no good practical reason" why other parts of the UK could not do the same.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan also wondered if a similar deal may be applied to London, whose inhabitants, like Scotland, voted Remain.

“Huge ramifications for London if Theresa May has conceded that it's possible for part of the UK to remain within the single market & customs union after Brexit. Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU and a similar deal here could protect tens of thousands of jobs,” Kahn wrote on Twitter.

“The nitty-gritty that will affect communities has not been examined”

While EU and UK leaders debate in Europe’s capital cities over what the shape of a future Brexit deal may look like, the day-to-day implications for people on the island of Ireland remain unclear.

“The border has only been addressed as a high-level principle at the Brexit negotiating table but security and other issues, the nitty-gritty and the day-to-day practicalities that will directly affect the lives of communities on both sides of the border, that has not been fully examined or explored in any meaningful way to date,” Deputy Director of Northern Ireland-based Centre for Cross Border Studies Anthony Soares told The Detail.

Soares questioned the impact of a border on security. “If Brexit means reintroducing any infrastructure near or at the border, including police stations, they will become a potential target for attacks,” he commented.

“To reopen police stations would also have a psychological effect on border communities and reinforce psychologically the presence of the border and that would be a backward step,” he added.

An agreement between UK and Dublin needs the DUP

So important is the issue of the border that last week Donald Tusk said he had agreed to consult the Irish leader Leo Varadkar on any British proposal before deciding whether to recommend the EU moving onto the next phase – an affirmation that amounted to giving Ireland a veto over negotiations.

"We are certainly not looking to veto anything," Ireland’s Europe minister Helen McEntee told the BBC on Monday morning. "Ireland wants to move on to phase two but it would be absolutely impossible to allow that when we don't have an absolutely concrete commitment there won't be a hard border."

It appears Theresa May was unable to give such a commitment at the talks on Monday. The British prime minister is herself fighting for her own survival as dissent grows within her party’s ranks on the Brexit divorce terms and what future trade relations will be like. She also has her hands tied. Any agreement between the UK government and Dublin on the border issue needs the consent of Northern Ireland’s DUP, which May’s minority government relies on to stay in power. The DUP insists rules on the British mainland cannot be any different from those in Northern Ireland – which once again, in the light of the UK’s Monday announcement suggesting Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union – raises more questions than it answers.

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