Brexit and the Irish Border dilemma

31 July 2017, The Irish Times

More than a year after the Brexit referendum in the UK, we are little wiser about how Britain’s exit from the EU will actually be organised. One of the most sensitive issues for Ireland is the Border and the fear that despite reassuring noises from London and Brussels – and from many other EU capitals – controls will be reimposed, with all the political and economic threats which that would mean.

Theresa May’s government has committed itself to a “seamless, frictionless” Border between the North and the Republic, but nobody is clear how this might be achieved. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s latest comment that it was up to London to work this out was, we must presume, born at least in part from frustration on the Irish side at the lack of clarity on Britain’s negotiating position.

Britain has committed to leaving the single market and the customs union and if this happens then some kind of Border controls are inevitable. If the Taoiseach’s comments lead to some more focus on this issue in London and Belfast then all the better, but with the Executive suspended in Stormont and the DUP having entered into an agreement to support the Conservative government, the politics of this are complicated.

The Government is, it appears, laying down a marker that it will not be talked into some kind of unsatisfactory compromise position, where the Border is reinstated but technology is used to lessen its impact on everyday life and trade. But this remains a real risk.

There are other possible solutions, but they all present their own difficulties. For example, the DUP – and quite possibly business interests in the North – would oppose the idea that Border checks take place on goods entering and leaving the Island of Ireland.

The Irish Government may also, to an extent, be playing for time. There are indications from London that the Conservative government’s position may be softening, with talk now that the UK could stay in the customs union for a transition period after it leaves the EU, which could be two or three years. Is it possible that the UK could even opt for a softer form of Brexit in the long term? Time will tell. Were this to happen, the Border issue might be more easily solved.

However the Government will know that it cannot rely on this happening. Its difficulty in trying to get meaningful talks on this is that the Brexit talks are only now getting going. While the Border is one of the issues to be discussed early on, a key problem is that much will depend on what is decided about future EU/UK trading arrangements – and talks on this are not likely to even start until very late this year. As with so many issues relating to Brexit, in terms of the Border we are looking here at a difficult and complex exercise in damage limitation.