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A guide to why the Northern Irish border is a huge problem for Brexit

A road sign is seen in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Reuters
A road sign is seen in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Reuters

One of the issues at the epicentre of the Brexit talks has been the Northern Ireland border. But now with the European Union’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier saying that a Brexit deal is possible within eight weeks, it suggests that the UK may have made headway on the extremely complex subject when it comes to severing ties with the bloc.

And though the former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson recently called the post-Brexit fall-back solution for the border in Northern Ireland a “suicide vest” being wrapped around the UK constitution, even Jacob Rees-Mogg’s staunchly pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) has come to terms with the importance of the border question.

Today (12 September), the ERG intends to reveal its solution to the problem, which has vexed negotiations with the EU since the very beginning. It will supposedly appease the bloc and prevent a hard border. Or perhaps it’ll be a fantasy scenario, much like Rees-Mogg’s assessment on how there’ll be a “£1.1tn ($1.4bn) Brexit boost.

While Johnson may have vaulted himself to the forefront of the Brexiteers who seem almost endlessly ignorant about Irish history, he’s not the only one still convinced that the EU’s focus on avoiding a hard border is some sort of contrivance — a gambit deployed to maintain the upper hand in negotiations.

The not-too distant history of the border

The reality, unfortunately, is a lot more sombre.

In the 30 years before the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed only 20 years ago, clashes between unionists (those who want the six-county Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK) and republicans (those who want the six counties to unite with the Republic of Ireland) — known simply as the Troubles — took the lives of more than 3,600 people. Tens of thousands of British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland to try and curb the violence.

Though the Common Travel Area, which has theoretically allowed free movement between the UK and Ireland since the 1920s, predates both the EU and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it was not until the introduction of the EU’s single market in 1993 and the concurrent abolishment of customs controls that the basis for the complete elimination of the border was created. The Good Friday Agreement itself provided the avenue for the phasing out of the British military checkpoints that had been introduced during the height of the Troubles.

Given the number of lives lost, it’s not hard to see why everyone is anxious that any change to Northern Ireland’s status could see a return to the tumult of the past.

What we know about the UK government’s approach to tackle the border issue post-Brexit

UK prime minister Theresa May’s solution to the border issue is contained within the Chequers agreement, which proposes a free trade area “with a common rulebook for industrial goods and agricultural products.” However, that plan has been rebuffed by the bloc because this would see it forced to lower its standard of customs regulation. The EU, however, was at least pleased by a reaffirming of the December 2017 “backstop” agreement.

This is the fall-back solution that Johnson is talking about. And in the event that the two parties can’t come to full agreement, it would see Northern Ireland “diverge” from the rest of the UK, and remain in full customs alignment with the EU, and thus the Republic of Ireland. There would then be no need for customs checks.

Although that would mean that Northern Ireland essentially gets to benefit from the EU’s single market without being a member of the bloc, the EU is willing to make that trade off. But the branching off of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK is untenable to Rees-Mogg, the ERG, and vast swathes of Britain’s ruling-political class. And until now, they’ve been pretending it isn’t an issue.

In August, Rees-Mogg was blasted for suggesting that people crossing the border could face inspections just like “we had during the Troubles,” and, earlier this month, he said that the solution could just be to “simply not to put up a border.” Downing Street has already rubbished the solution that the ERG is likely to unveil today: “flying squads” of tax inspectors who would carry out spot checks on goods at locations within Northern Ireland, rather than at the border.

A separate proposal being considered by the EU and Republic of Ireland, which would see EU officials stationed at British ports, has also been rebuffed. “Chequers delivers on the issue of the Northern Ireland border,” a spokesman said yesterday.