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One of the most intractable issues in the Brexit negotiations is the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
The reasons for this are obvious. The Republic is an EU member state. When we leave the EU all our borders will become frontiers where customs duties will be chargeable. Northern Ireland is an integral province of the UK so logically there should be a hard border between it and the Republic. That said, no-one, including the EU, want that but none of the possible ways of avoiding it are acceptable either to the EU or the UK.
The issue cannot be fully understood without an awareness of the border’s historical significance. Until 1921 there was no border because the whole of Ireland was part of the UK. The South chose to leave whilst the North opted to remain part of the UK, but there have always been those in the North who wanted to unite with the Republic. Sinn Fein is the political party which represents them politically but the IRA did so violently in the past.
For thirty years from 1968 until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 there was a continual struggle between the Republicans who wanted a united Ireland and the Unionists who wanted to remain part of the UK. There were many attempts to broker a peace but none succeeded until 1998 when the Irish and UK Governments collaborated in promoting a peace process. Even then there were hiccups until Ian Paisley and David Trimble agreed to form a coalition. This coalition, then under other leaders, broke down in 2017. The concern, shared by the Irish and UK Government, is that a hard border could undo the peace process. The EU negotiators understand this and will not accept any Brexit proposals that might renew conflict.
Their initial EU solution was to make its border with the UK to run down the Irish Sea so that there would be no regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and the EU, giving the North a special economic status post Brexit. However, it would mean that the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK would have to be controlled at customs points like any to and from the EU. This was rejected by the DUP, the majority party in Northern Ireland, because they want to remain unambiguously part of the UK. The support of the DUP’s ten MPs in the Westminster Parliament is essential to Theresa May’s Government’s survival so they cannot be ignored.
An alternative solution, put forward by the UK Government, would be to use technology to create a ‘frictionless’ border between North Ireland and the Republic. This would require major traders to clear the movement of their goods in advance and to make special allowances for smaller traders. It would also require regulatory convergence with the EU in agriculture, which is the predominant nature of that trade. This option has been opposed by the Irish Government who see it as re-imposing a border and creating a possible threat to the peace process.
A third solution, favoured by many backbench MPs, would be for the UK to enter a new customs union with the EU. That would mean maintaining many of the EU rules that are central to maintaining free trade but it would also mean the UK putting the same tariffs on third countries as the rest of the EU. It might not involve free movement of people but that would have to be negotiated. This would not be acceptable to hard-line Brexiteers who want us to be free to negotiate trade deals with non-EU countries.
The unavoidable conclusion is that there is no universally acceptable solution to the Irish border issue. Obviously there are other issues in the UK negotiations with the EU but those open to a hard, no deal Brexit need to recognise the possible consequences of that for our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.