Why Brexit Talks Could Fall Victim To The Northern Irish Border Battles

Leo Varadkar Ireland
Ireland's Prime minister Leo Varadkar arrives for the EU Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth in Gothenburg, Sweden November 17, 2017. Ireland and the U.K. differ over a crucial Brexit issue TT News Agency/Jonas Ekstromer/via Reuters

Brexit negotiations have thrown more attention onto the island of Ireland than British politics has seen in years—perhaps since 1997, when the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades of sectarian violence was signed.

But in recent days, Ireland has grown from a nagging background throb to a full-blown tension headache for Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis. There's a chance that this issue could prevent negotiations from advancing to the next phase at the time the government wants.

So what's gone wrong, and what's being done to fix it? Here's what you need to know.

What's the problem with the Irish Border?

A big part of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland involves the border between the U.K.-aligned north and the Republic in the south being frictionless. At the moment, it is a line on a map and not much more—you could go back and forth across it without realising.

But after Brexit, that border will become the only land boundary between Britain and its former partners in the EU. Assuming we are outside of the EU's single market and customs union, that border will also be an important entry point into a heavily protected economic area, and Brussels will have a strong interest in policing it.

Nobody thinks Northern Ireland is about to slide immediately back into full-blown armed conflict. But it is nonetheless a region whose stability is very fragile. Any change in the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic, especially increased border security, or any change in the way Northern Ireland fits into the U.K., could test that stability.

Why has the issue flared up now?

The Brexit negotiators are hurtling toward a summit of EU leaders on December 14, at which Britain is desperate for the talks to move beyond their initial phase, focused on the terms of exit from the bloc, and on to the meatier second section, including trade talks.

But the Irish border is one of the hot-button issues on which other leaders must judge "sufficient progress" has been made in order for talks to progress.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Friday (24 November) that "sufficient progress," for him, means more than good intentions. "We have move to phase two on the basis of a credible road map or the parameters around which we can design a credible road map," he said.

The problem is that the two sides are miles apart on how to solve the problem.

What is the dispute?

A paper prepared by the EU's Brexit task force in collaboration with the Irish government, then leaked to RTÉ News and other outlets, argued that the only way to solve the puzzle was for Northern Ireland to remain in or very close to the EU's customs union even as the U.K. left it. That would avoid the kind of "regulatory divergence" between north and south that Coveney on Friday warned would cause trouble.

But for the British government, that's always been a non-starter. It would, the government says, undermine the integrity of the U.K. to have one nation engaged in a fundamentally different relationship with Europe than the others. On Friday, the government was forced to re-confirm this position, after a spokesman briefing journalists appeared to suggest Northern Ireland's status was up for negotiation.

The EU solution would also mean some measure of border checks between Northern Ireland and the U.K., an alarming prospect for the Unionist side of Ireland's political divide, including the government's partners in the Democratic Unionist Party.

The U.K. government wants "a new customs partnership arrangement with the EU," one function of which would be to avoid a hard border in Ireland. But since much of the discussion about future customs arrangements is reserved for the next phase of Brexit talks, it is difficult to make progress on this.