If Johnson leads the North out of the customs union, Dublin will have to deal with checks
Johnson’s Border position signals to his side it is charging towards Brexit, and it signals to Dublin it has to get over itself about checks
Boris Johnson has promised to manage the Border – if possible to the point of invisibility – rather than take away the need for it
Dublin was taken aback by the sudden arrival of and vivid detail in RTÉ’s report about British proposals for customs posts on Monday night, but the truth is it has known for some time that Boris Johnson’s plans – deal or no-deal – would require Border checks .
Since Johnson’s government walked away from commitments made by its predecessor to avoid any hardening of the Border that would require infrastructure, Dublin has been accommodating itself to the reality that some form of Border checks may be inevitable. That it has been doing so behind closed doors – there is no subject considered as sensitive in Government – has not blunted its urgency.
It’s a bullet Ireland thought it had dodged when promises were made in 2017 by Theresa May which would have paved the way for a Brexit soft enough to leave the Border unchecked. However, May could not pass the withdrawal agreement.
Johnson’s approach has been radically different from the outset. He has promised to manage the Border – if possible to the point of invisibility – rather than take away the need for it.
He has also pledged there will be no difference in customs rules between the North and the UK.
He has said plainly that it is the UK’s intention to diverge from EU regulation.
Such a Border is not manageable without checks. If the North is in a different customs area to the Republic, checks and controls between the two jurisdictions are inevitable. Yet Dublin knows this already.
It also knows that Johnson knows that these ideas – even if they made it into the UK’s formal proposals – are a non-runner.
Dublin and the EU may not trust Johnson. But they don’t think he is stupid. So he knows these proposals are a non-runner. They are tabled for some other purposes – to signal to his own side that is charging ahead towards Brexit, to signal to Dublin it is going to have to get over itself about checks.
On Tuesday the Taoiseach welcomed Johnson’s efforts to distance himself from the “string of customs posts” idea. Yet as long as Johnson is determined to lead the North out of the customs union, Dublin knows it will have to deal with the issue of checks.
It knows Brexit may force it to harden the Border in order to protect the single market. That would mean a political earthquake which would almost certainly shatter the remarkable political consensus in Dublin thus far. Senior people in Government almost never speak about it. When they do, they do so in a tone of fear and apprehension.
That prospect is not yet here. But as the leak showed, it is very, very real.
Few people in Government circles in Dublin expect a realistic negotiation with the UK in the coming weeks, let alone a deal. And Dublin will certainly not agree to any replacement for the backstop that involves Border checks.
Instead the Government – like most people in Brussels – expects an extension to be requested, either by Johnson’s administration or by a replacement. That extension will almost certainly have to be followed by a UK general election. That vote may ultimately decide whether the Irish Border is to be hardened.