Why is the Irish Border such a big deal in Brexit?
A couple of weeks ago Paul Healy in the Roscommon People published a quotation from Tony Blair as follows: “Time has not lessened my sense of the catastrophic effects of Brexit. It has increased it…(and) there is simply no answer to the Irish (border) issue”.
The 499-kilometre border running from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle will become the only land border between the UK and the European Union after Brexit.
The 1998 Belfast Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland and removed the need for border checks.
It also established north-south rules and institutions that helped solidify the Peace Process. The border is currently invisible and neither side wants the return of infrastructure along the border or the creation of a hard border.
So what exactly is a hard border?
It is a frontier monitored and protected by customs officials and border inspectors, and potentially police or military personnel if there are security issues around the border.
The general fear is that the return of customs officials or border inspectors would be so unacceptable to people who travel freely across an open border that it would lead to anger and, potentially, violence.
That could in turn lead to a police or military presence along the Border to protect check points. Customs and security posts along the Border were regular targets of republican paramilitaries during the 30-year Troubles.
Why would there be a need for border checks?
Different customs rules, regulations and standards will apply in the non-EU Northern Ireland and the EU affiliated Republic if the UK is leaving the EU so the different rules could have to be enforced….. at…. A… border.
What do the EU and UK want along the Border?
Neither party to the Brexit negotiations wants to see the return of a hard border but they cannot agree a plan on how to achieve this.
So have they come up with anything to solve this problem?
The EU and UK agreed -in a political deal in December 2017- that a “backstop” was required in the withdrawal agreement – the divorce deal – that would guarantee an invisible (!!) border.
The December 2017 agreement also aims to protect north-south cooperation, support the all-island economy and safeguards the 1998 Belfast Agreement (which ended the Troubles and brought peace to the country).
In March 2018 the two sides agreed that there had to be a legal text – not just a political declaration – around how this option would work in practice should no better option be found.
What exactly is the backstop?
It is an insurance policy written into the withdrawal agreement, or Brexit Treaty, guaranteeing no harder border on the island of Ireland.
It would only be used as a last resort or the default option if the EU and UK could not reach an overarching free trade deal that would make trade so frictionless that there would be no border between the EU and the UK, including on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
What backstop has the EU proposed as a solution?
Brussels believes a hard border can be avoided and the Belfast Agreement upheld if Northern Ireland remains fully aligned with the EU’s customs union and parts of the single market after Brexit.
This would mean matching the rules north and south of the Border for customs, energy, environmental regulations and laws covering agriculture and fisheries.
Northern Ireland would stick to EU rules covering state aid and would fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in applying those rules. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has insisted that this backstop can only apply to Northern Ireland.
Does the UK like the EU’s proposed Backstop?
No. British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that no UK leader could agree to different rules applying to different parts of the UK that would separate Northern Ireland constitutionally and economically from the rest of the UK.
London argues that if the backstop only applies to Northern Ireland, it would effectively create a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. (Not of course in actual fact but symbolically. Often you find on land ownership maps the dividing line being the ‘centre of stream’ or ‘drain’ or centre of ‘river’ for counties etc.)
Does anyone else NOT like the EU plan?
Yes, the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in Northern Ireland whose 10 MPs at Westminster prop up May’s minority Conservative government, and also (2)the hard-line Brexit supporters within her party.
(This actually gives Northern Ireland the benefit of dual trade citizenship!! But the DUP see it as a threat to the erosion of its UK status…….Scotland would like that arrangement very much!!).
Both the DUP and the ‘hard-line Brexiteers have said that Northern Ireland cannot be treated any differently from the rest of the UK after it leaves the EU in March 2019. They oppose any checks between Ireland and Britain and what they see as a border in the Irish Sea i.e. between N.I. and the ‘mainland’ U.K. (There is another anomaly here in that the majority in N.I. voted to REMAIN IN the EU!)
If there is no backstop . . . there would be a disorderly Brexit and the UK would CRASH OUT of the EU in March 2019……over the cliff scenario.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has warned that its “red line” is that there could be no Brexit deal that would divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. This was a “blood red” line!!
The EU has since the summer been trying to devise a plan to “de-dramatise” its own backstop to make it more politically acceptable to the UK government and the DUP.
What are the UK’s proposals for a wider EU-UK trade deal that might avoid a hard Irish border?
May has said that under the UK government’s “Chequers plan” – the July 2018 proposal for an overarching trade agreement between the EU and the UK – the Border issue would be solved by effectively creating a free trade area for goods that would avoid the need for customs and regulatory checks between the EU and UK, including at the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
European Council president Donald Tusk has said that the Chequers proposals would not work.
What backstop has the UK proposed?
The UK government has suggested a backstop that would keep the whole of the UK aligned with EU customs union rules for a limited time after the post-Brexit transition period – a standstill period when current EU economic rules continue to apply over the UK – expires at the end of 2020.
(This of course evokes the famous phrase ‘kicking the can down the road’)
Can a compromise be reached on the backstop?
The concept of a two-part backstop – also known as the “backstop to the backstop” has also been mooted but if the above on the single ‘backstop’ is complicated, its twin is just impossible!!!
(Using references from various online sources etc. !!