There are “difficult discussions” to be had between the EU and Ireland, one Irish source told me. As I was speaking to them I was standing exactly on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. The invisible line between two countries running precisely down the middle of the country lane I was walking along. On one side the UK and on the other Ireland. The border, and the much derided backstop, have been the major hurdles preventing Theresa May getting her Brexit Divorce Deal approved by MPs.
It seemed a perfect spot to ask how the Irish government plans to deal with the dilemma it might face. If the UK leaves without a deal how do you balance the twin promises of respecting the Good Friday Agreement while also protecting the EU’s highly-valued Single Market?
It’s a question that will be discussed by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin today.
This is an extremely sensitive subject because if you protect the Single Market, according to the EU’s own rules, then you have to bring customs checks back to a border that has effectively vanished under the terms of the peace process.
As I sat in the Full Irish Cafe in Newry, just a few minute drive from the border, chatting with farmers and business people, it’s very clear no-one wants a return to a ‘hard’ border. The UK, Ireland and the EU have repeatedly promised to respect those wishes, indeed the Good Friday Agreement prevents the sort of customs posts, check points and policing that defined some of the enduring images of the ‘Troubles’.
Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar will also meet people from Northern Ireland and the border area ahead of their talks and they’ll most likely hear very similar thoughts to the ones I heard in the cafe.
“It is important to hear their voices as we work together to deal with the challenges that Brexit presents... These are people for whom the border is a very real issue – people from communities along the border, from business, and with direct personal experience of conflict before the Good Friday Agreement,” the Irish government has said in a statement.
That doesn’t answer the question of how you protect the Single Market and respect the peace that people have enjoyed for more than 20 years now. Yes, there have been plans and talks between the Dublin and Brussels, but they’re being kept tightly under wraps. Only small teams of officials are discussing them. It’s just so politically volatile.
No plan has been agreed as a result of those ongoing talks, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Tuesday. Even publishing any plans would cause uproar. Ireland finds itself in a tricky position, facing the prospect of being the only EU member with a post-Brexit land border with the UK.
The Irish approach seems to be to quietly make plans to bring in EU Single Market checks in the event of ‘No Deal’. With tacit EU agreement and with Brussels encouraged to turn a blind eye to enforcement, these could be introduced gently IF needed, while all the time hoping that ‘No Deal’ doesn’t actually happen.
Last night’s vote in the Commons, forcing the PM to ask for an extension and delay Brexit even longer, would have brought a sigh of relief to the Irish sources I’ve been hearing from. Angela Merkel will be offering support and solidarity to Leo Varadkar today but also wanting to know just how does Dublin plan to deal with the border dilemma. Merkel is an ally but she is also a keen defender of the European Union’s Single Market.