Why the border is problematic
The problem is that the independent Republic of Ireland wants, essentially, a commercially open border with Northern Ireland, the part of the island still under British rule. The two economies are tightly intertwined. On Monday, it looked as though Ireland might have won a major Brexit concession from the United Kingdom on the issue. Northern Ireland would have “regulatory alignment” with the rules covering the E.U. customs union and single market, which would eliminate the need for customs posts between the north and the republic.
On Monday morning, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar thought this was a done deal. By Monday evening it was off the table. This is the deal that Ireland wants. But for many in Theresa May’s own party and the DUP — a Northern Irish unionist party that campaigned for Brexit and defends the ‘Britishness’ of Northern Ireland — which she relies upon for support, it’s too much to swallow.
The Irish border issue could very well crash Brexit talks. Ireland can veto Britain’s progression to the next phase of Brexit negotiations. The E.U. firmly backs Ireland. Last weekend, the president of the European Council issued a strongly worded statement: “Let me say very clearly: If the U.K. offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the E.U.”
Fraught as Brexit negotiations may be, Britain, Ireland and the E.U. all agree on one thing. There can be no return to the old borders inside Ireland. So why is the Irish border now the biggest obstacle to Brexit talks?
Britain has been playing the blame game
Speak to politicians in Dublin and you get the sense that Britain has been paying lip service on the Irish border question. Dublin politicians worry that Britain has not been awake to the real risks Brexit poses to the Irish peace process. Irish politicians have said that Britain is confused, sending mixed messages, and has “thrown Northern Ireland under a bus.”
My interviews with Irish politicians suggest that two narratives coming from Britain have reinforced a perception that it isn’t serious about finding a solution to the Irish border. First, Britain has argued that it has no desire for a hard border, but if the E.U. and Ireland want to impose customs checks, that’s their business. This “blame game” has been part of British government policy on the Irish border, as this position paper shows:
[F]ollowing our exit from the European Union the U.K. Government will have the flexibility to determine its own border arrangement for the purposes of goods movements. … The U.K. Government’s clear priority … is to avoid any return to a hard border. … The U.K. must reach an agreement with the E.U. in order to ensure that the Irish side of the land border, which is subject to relevant E.U. regulations, is also as seamless and frictionless as possible.
The Irish politicians I’ve interviewed are frustrated by what they see as Britain’s attempts to try to shift the blame for a hard border to Ireland or the E.U., when it should simply provide detailed proposals to avoid it.
Technological solutions are unacceptable
Britain’s second narrative is an insistence that a hard border is really a nonissue, because technical solutions are available. The government recommends that technology like automatic plate number recognition, surveillance cameras, customs pre-clearance and spot checks can replace the need for physical infrastructure along the Irish border.
My Dublin interlocutors universally consider a technological solution to a hard border unacceptable. Governing party Fine Gael has insisted since at least last summer that a political, not a technological, solution is necessary. Sinn Féin has dismissed such proposals as “laughable” and warned that any physical infrastructure on the border could provoke widespread civil disobedience. Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s second largest party, which supports Fine Gael’s minority government, has made it clear that in any border with Northern Ireland, either physical or electronic checks must be avoided. Talks are unlikely to go any further unless Britain takes these objections seriously.
What’s next for Brexit negotiations?
What do these findings tell us about the prospects for Brexit negotiations? First, without sufficient detail from Britain, we’re unlikely to see progress. Ireland wants “regulatory alignment” with Northern Ireland, meaning Northern Ireland could choose to follow the same E.U. rules on trade that the republic does, even if the rest of the U.K. doesn’t. Britain’s track record suggests it will now have to try to convince Dublin to accept a fudge such as a “digital border,” or consider the regulatory alignment of the entire U.K. with the E.U. But Ireland and the EU27 insist they see no reason to settle for less than Monday’s deal.
Second, Britain’s track record in negotiations shows that it is reluctant to get into meaningful detail, and unsuccessful when it does. Regulatory alignment of rules is already a vague substitute for the stronger demand for “no divergence” of rules, which would mean Northern Ireland would be compelled, rather than choose to mirror Irish customs and trading rules. Yet this too irked both the DUP and Brexit supporters within May’s party.
This is the major sticking point in negotiations. For over 18 months Ireland has requested concrete, written detail on the special status of Northern Ireland. May’s government has been politically unwilling or unable to provide this kind of detail. Unless this changes, Brexit talks are in real danger of collapsing this December.
Neil Dooley is lecturer in politics at the University of Sussex. He receives funding from the University of Sussex through the Research Development Fund.