The big Brexit question: What does a hard Irish Border look like?
Cliff Taylor: Brexiteers see border issue as technical, for Ireland it is much more
Trade experts say that technological solutions and advanced procedures can reduce the need for physical border controls and checks but not eliminate them. Photograph: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters
Everyone is agreed that they don’t want a return to a hard Irish Border. But behind this apparent unanimity lies a world of a difference in defining what exactly this means.
Most debate skims over this point, but Brexit is all about the details.
Here in Ireland, our desire is that things would pretty much continue as they are now. People and goods would be able to pass freely and there would be no infrastructure or checks and controls. The complexity of achieving this goal in the context of Brexit has been considerable.
It led to the creation of the backstop, the insurance policy that no matter what happened in future trade talks there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland. But as this has gone on, what exactly a hard border entails remains slightly misty. We know what we mean, but others do not necessarily agree.
Many in the Brexit lobby in the UK see things differently
So how is it defined? The December 2017 agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom committed the UK “to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”.
As with most such political agreements, there is a bit of interpretation needed here – and scope for debate. Could there, for example, be physical infrastructure somewhere away from the Border? And similarly when we say related “checks and controls”, does that rule out any such checks or could they, for example, take place at company premises North and South?
The Government’s view is that we want the North to remain in the same trading bloc with the Republic – in other words to have the same customs regime and the same rules and regulations applying to goods moving across the Border.
This means no border checks are needed. Just like now.
But many in the Brexit lobby in the UK see things differently. They argue that Northern Ireland and the Republic could be in separate trading blocs and that technology, advanced customs procedures and some alignment of rules could be used to avoid actual checks at the Border itself. This, in their definition, would meet the commitment avoid a hard border.
This is more than just a technicality. The draft withdrawal agreement commits to the same customs and regulatory systems applying North and South – and to the whole of the UK staying in a customs union with the EU – as the backstop mechanism. This would apply unless and until a new way to avoid a hard border was found, ideally – but not necessarily – via a new EU/UK trade deal.
By seeking changes to this – perhaps a time limit, or a strengthened review mechanism, or a commitment to look at other technological solutions – the Brexiteers and the DUP are saying that there cannot be a long-term commitment that the Border will remain exactly as it is now.
Now the reason the backstop idea has endured, albeit with a changed structures, is that alignment between the North and South in customs and goods regulations is the only way to avoid border checks post-Brexit.
Trade experts say that technological solutions and advanced procedures can reduce the need for physical controls and checks but not eliminate them.
London seems happy to ignore the wider political context in Ireland and the delicate compromises that have brought peace
Even with the most advanced procedures you would need checks to ensure compliance. You might also need some infrastructure, such as camera monitoring.
Even the most advanced borders, such as Norway/Sweden, have some infrastructure.
And while there are already police operations to control smuggling, opportunities for this would increase if the North was in a separate customs zone – and here again checks are needed.
Finally, there is the thorny issue of food and animal checks. Some are currently conducted at Larne and alignment of rules might help, but there are EU rules about the need for veterinary inspection posts to control food and livestock entering the single market.
From an Irish point of view, pretty much any change to the existing border would be problematic. We are not talking about controlling the movements of people in their everyday lives – this would be protected by the Common Travel Area. Nor – let’s hope – the return of military infrastructure.
But the risk is of an economic border and the return to the kind of checks on goods movements which existed before the single market. It would be different to now, opening up new barriers and creating new opportunities for dissident activity.
This is what Ireland has been fighting against, trying to engineer a solution where nothing will change, while having to concede that other ways forward can be looked at and regular reviews held.
But, increasingly, London seems happy to ignore the wider political context in Ireland and the delicate compromises that have brought peace to the island.
To many in London, it is increasingly a technical exercise of avoiding border checkpoints. To us it is so much more.
Theresa May’s extraordinary decision this week to abandon the backstop plan in favour of a search for unspecified alternatives means the talks are now stuck.
But there will be another effort to fix this and it is likely to involve suggestions from London of a time limit on the backstop, or a stepped-up approach to examining how new technologies could be used (the EU has already said it would look at these) or perhaps new commitments about review mechanisms.
I don’t know if the demands from London will get any hearing in the EU. But the bottom line is the same as it has been from day one. If the customs and regulatory rules vary North and South, then there will be a new economic border on the island.
And while there is scope for debate about exactly where and how the necessary checks and controls are made, this would be to risk dangerous new divisions on the island.