Border is far from a red line issue at Westminster
UK government showing little sign of commitment despite threat of veto from Dublin
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry: urged Boris Johnson to stick to earlier promise that Irish border arrangements will not change. Photograph: PA Wire
As MPs continued to debate the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill at Westminster on Tuesday, commuters outside were picking up copies of the Evening Standard.
“Now Irish warn UK: £40 billion can’t buy you talks,” read a headline that took up most of the front page. “Keep open border or we’ll use our veto.”
Based on an interview with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, the report said Ireland was prepared to use its veto to block talks on a future trade deal unless Britain offers assurances that there will be no visible border on the island.
“Anybody in London, or anywhere else in Britain, who underestimates the politics of this or the strength of feeling in Ireland, I think, is making a mistake,” Coveney said.
Boris Johnson seems to have got the message, telling MPs on Tuesday that it was clear during his visit to Dublin last week that the issue of the Border is “very live” in Irish politics. But when he declared that a return to a hard border was “unthinkable”, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, reminded him of a lengthy piece he wrote last September, laying down four personal red lines for the Brexit negotiations.
“None of them related to the Irish land border, which is a crucial issue to 1.8 million of our own citizens and 4.8 million of our friends south of the Border,” she said.
Westminster is, for the most part, relaxed about the rumblings from Dublin
“Let me urge the foreign secretary to announce a fifth red line today by promising unequivocally what he promised last year – that Irish border arrangements will not change – and to say that if those arrangements do change, he will refuse to stay in the government.”
Johnson avoided the challenge, simply repeating that the government did not want a hard border “north-south, or indeed east-west”. Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader at Westminster, offered the Conservatives a gentle reminder on Tuesday that any new border in the Irish Sea would be “gravely destabilising” to a government which depends on DUP votes.
Westminster is, for the most part, relaxed about the rumblings from Dublin, apparently convinced that the improved financial offer will be enough to persuade the EU to move on to trade talks. Theresa May’s official spokesman said on Monday that she expected to make “further progress” on the Border in the run-up to the December meeting of the European Council. But there is no sign yet that her government is preparing to make the kind of commitments that would satisfy its counterpart in Dublin.