By Diane Cooke
Ireland and the controversial issue of its north-south border after Brexit is emerging as one of the key sticking points in negotiations. But why is it so contentious?
On Monday, the UK and the EU failed to reach an agreement during a crunch Brexit meeting in Brussels. One of the key issues was the fate of the Irish-UK border.
Reaching a UK-EU consensus on citizens’ rights, the cost of a divorce bill and the UK-Irish border were a prerequisite for talks to move on to the next stage and discussing future trade relations at a summit later on this month.
But talks broke down after the DUP rejected Theresa May’s agreement to potentially keep the province aligned with EU law after Brexit.
Mrs May, who had travelled to Brussels to finalise the deal with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, was forced to back away after the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist party objected that it would prevent Northern Ireland from leaving the EU “on the same terms” as the rest of the UK.
The largely invisible border dividing the island of Ireland into the Republic of Ireland (which is remaining in the European Union) and Northern Ireland is made up of over 200 crossings 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 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.”
Brexit progress talks have so far foundered on the question of how to avoid a hard border between Ireland.
The main sticking point came in the clash between the stated position of Theresa May’s team – leaving the single market and customs union – and Ireland’s demand to keep the border open. Enforcing different standards in the UK after Brexit would mean goods would likely need to be checked crossing the border to avoid illegal imports and exports.
Exempting Northern Ireland from any changes allows it to stay aligned with Ireland – and the EU – and thus avoid the need for checks. However, separating Northern Ireland’s regulatory framework from the rest of the UK would lead to the same customs problems in a different direction – leading to an implied border in the Irish Sea, with customs checks in ports and airports.
According to The Guardian, there is a simple solution. "When Britain eventually leaves the EU, Northern Ireland should remain within the customs union.
"While not perfect, it is undeniably the simplest way to avoid the difficulties that would come with a hard border between the two parts of Ireland. But this proposal has been rejected by the DUP. Yet it is tough to be sympathetic to their stance, because ultimately it is one based exclusively on symbolism rather than pragmatism."
DUP MP Sammy Wilson stated recently that if the Conservatives are prepared “to have Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the UK”, his party could no longer support the government.
The Conservatives’ minority government is propped up by the DUP’s 10 MPs, in a confidence and supply arrangement that sees them back the Tories in key votes.
Can Theresa May fix the border problem, or is another General Election on the cards?