Ireland’s Brexit borders: Is this game over for the British government?

Ireland’s Brexit borders: Is this game over for the British government?
All you need to know — Brexit's biggest barrier remains the Republic and the North of Ireland's future borders, the British government have treated the complex situation like a game and now they're out of moves. Here Dawn Foster explains what 's happening.

In a Westminster pub a month before the country went to the polls to vote on Britain’s future membership of the EU, I asked a civil servant I knew what the government were planning to do about the Irish border in the event of the Leave campaign winning the referendum. The look on his face suggested I’d asked whether the prime minister was planning to confer human rights for all domestic pets. “Nothing!” he laughed. “Because it’s not going to happen.” But it did. And the lack of any contingency plan for the outcome is more apparent in relation to the Irish question than any other aspect of our EU exit.

None of the politicians I spoke to at last year’s Conservative party conference grasped that the border between the North and South would pose a problem at all, let alone such a monumental barrier to any agreement.

The British government has continued to argue it can negotiate a satisfactory deal to exit the union, despite the facts and outcomes so far suggesting exactly the opposite. Theresa May’s decision to take the country to the polls in June this year to bolster her slim Conservative majority was, she said, to ensure her position was stronger, with more Tory MPs enabling her to pass any resolutions in parliament with ease. That famously blew up in her face, and led to the supply and demand deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, further complicating Irish matters by bringing a pro-Brexit party with strong opinions on the working of Northern Ireland’s border into government. Should she wish to, leader Arlene Foster could bring down May’s government in an instant.

Now, May’s stuck in an impossible situation. Foster has demanded Northern Ireland not be given special status within the United Kingdom. Dublin parties and Sinn Fein have said they will not accept a hard border. The difficulty lies in the fact that if the UK leaves the European Union, it leaves the common travel area too. If the border remains as is, it becomes an unpoliced entry point between the EU and the UK. Someone has to climb down: the DUP don’t want the North to remain in the single market and customs union. Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar does: a leaked draft agreement that put forward Ireland as a whole remaining in the customs union and single market was met with fury by the DUP, who denied the blueprint was agreed by the Conservatives, claiming it was an attempt by Dublin to bounce May into such a position.

After all sides suggested an agreement would be reached by the end of Monday office hours, May and Juncker accepted no such agreement has been forthcoming, but will have been settled by next week’s EU talks.

On Friday, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney pointed out that it would be near impossible for North/South cooperation to continue unchanged if the North left the EU, given how many aspects of life are governed by EU standards: “If you have different standards in terms of food safety, animal welfare, animal health,” he said, “if you have different standards in relation to medical devices and the approval of drugs and so on, how then can you maintain practical North-South cooperation as we have it today if that regulatory divergence appears after Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom leaves the European Union?”

In the run up to the vote, the European Agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan warned that “Dundalk could become the new Calais”, essentially functioning as a backdoor into the UK, with people smugglers using the Republic and border towns to enter Northern Ireland and from there Britain. Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland secretary and a Leave campaigner, insisted it was crucial the Irish border remain open and unfortified. This conundrum, the belief that the free movement of people and goods can continue after the UK leaves the EU and that it can be fulfilled without concessions on the status of Northern Ireland, is no closer to being resolved.

At the crux of the issue is a lack of understanding on the border as it stands. On many roads in border areas, a bus journey can take you in and out of the Republic repeatedly. Some residential streets sit directly on the border, with a family in the Republic able to see into the front room of their neighbours in the North. Life for many people involves crossing the border for work, but also to visit the friends, buy groceries and petrol. The journalist Séumas O’Reilly wrote last week: “The only reachable pub where I grew up was across the border; our nearest shop was too. Having to present documents to armed men just so we can commute to work, visit next-door neighbours, or access the amenities we have used our entire lives, would not only be wildly impractical, but a cruel thing to demand of law-abiding citizens.”

A militarised border is, contrary to Conservative claims, a distinct possibility and one that risks reopening the deep psychological and political wounds of the past fifty years. Many people in the north consider themselves Irish, have Irish passports (Ian Paisley Jr encouraged citizens to apply for Irish passports after the Brexit result, to the surprise of some) and a policed border is an impediment to that identity and risks contravening the Good Friday Agreement, not twenty years after it was signed.

The risks to the Good Friday Agreement are scoffed at often by Leavers, but the divisions are growing daily and evident in some of the incendiary invective emanating from the dispute. The Sun called upon Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to “grow up” and “shut his gob”. Former Ulster Unionist MP Lord Kilclooney complained about “foul-mouthed Republicans” after criticism of a tweet describing Varadkar as “the Indian.” A Channel 4 news segment in which a member of the public said “‘the Irish are just making trouble because they lost. A bit petty isn’t it really? The southern Irish have to lump it, basically” went viral as an example of dismissive British views of the border problem.

Labour MP and Leave campaigner Kate Hoey borrowed Donald Trump’s rhetoric repeatedly stating on radio and television if Dublin want a border “they’ll have to pay for it.” Donald Tusk’s confirmation on Friday that Varadkar would have a final veto on any border decision and that talks would not continue without the Taoiseach’s approval was met with fury amongst leavers who viewed Brexit as a triumph for self-determination, and Varadkar’s insistence he would require written confirmation from the British government there would be no hard border is a firm red line.

An outcome that satisfies all parties seems unthinkable and the ongoing deadlock seems understandable in the circumstances. The floated ideas, for “digital borders”, airships tracking movement over the border appear to be attempts for Westminster to have its cake and eat it, while misunderstanding the technicalities involved. Calls for a Norwegian style system are at odds with many Leavers’ desire for full extrication from the European Union, but also misunderstand how complex and contentious the Norway-Sweden border is in practice.

Varadkar today says he is disappointed the agreement floated was rejected, while DUP sources are angered at a feeling the draft was “minted in Dublin” and have reiterated Foster’s insistence that she will not accept any border arrangement that uncouples Northern Ireland from the UK. Whatever the final outcome, a lot of people will be unhappy: May’s government needs to accept there is no possible way to forge a deal that is acceptable to everyone.

Either Northern Ireland accepts special status and Varadkar assents to the next stage of Brexit talks, or May backs her government partners the DUP in an attempt not to sink her government. The British government until now has treated the future of Ireland and the North like a game, and now they’ve run out moves. Whatever decision is made, the outcome is more political chaos and confusion.

Follow Dawn Foster on Twitter

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