There is political consensus across the British Isles that we want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is incumbent on political leaders in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to work together to ensure that this happens.
In recent days it has been made clear that this issue will not be easy to resolve and will require both creativity and sacrifice to come up with a workable solution.
In my view there are, broadly speaking, three potential outcomes. Option one is a bi-lateral agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland which allows the UK authorities to access the Republic’s checks at entry points into RoI. There may be a requirement for the UK authorities to have a physical presence at these sites to conduct their own checks and this may have to be explicitly agreed.
Option two, which has been advanced by Northern Ireland nationalists, is a border running down the Irish Sea with UK immigration and customs checks at Northern Ireland’s ports and airports.
Option three is a hard border.
The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar caused a political storm over the weekend with his comments that he would not design a “Brexiteer Border”. This generated strong condemnation from unionists of all hues who interpret Mr Varadkar’s comments as a rejection of option one and an endorsement of option two.
Both the Taoiseach and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs have since clarified that they are not in favour of a border along the Irish Sea.
At the heart of this issue are questions of economics and sovereignty. Unionists will not countenance a border along the Irish Sea. The idea of passport controls to travel within the United Kingdom is an anathema to Unionists. It raises questions of second class citizenship and erecting boundaries within the United Kingdom whilst harmonising relations within the island of Ireland.
There are, in addition to this, economic questions arising out of increased checks and potential delays to NI-GB trade which accounts for 60% of our external sales.
There are similar concerns in the Republic of Ireland. Given historic relations between the two countries, I imagine that UK authorities operating within Ireland have a certain sensitivity.
Equally the RoI government will be wary of any economic barriers with the rest of the EU tariff barriers arise between the UK and RoI.
Whilst I have every confidence that this issue will be resolved, the alternative is a hard border which is exactly what we are all seeking to avoid.
I would assume that the DUP`s coalition with the Conservative Party will mean the Government will offer a guarantee that there`ll be no compromise on free movement within the United Kingdom if an agreement cannot be reached with the Republic.
I am in no doubt that given the choice unionists would force a hard border before allowing passport and customs checks between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. For Unionists like myself whose driving motivation is to maintain and promote the United Kingdom, a formal trade and travel barrier within the UK simply will not wash.
My own view is that some sort of arrangement will have to be reached between the UK and Ireland that allows a sensible and pragmatic approach to securing the UK’s interests at entry points to RoI. Technology offers us the opportunity to minimise the physical presence this would require which should save some blushes on behalf of our southern colleagues. It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved.
There are two complicating factors which I see at the moment. The first is the Taoiseach’s recently expressed view that he hopes Brexit will not happen. This would appear to be burying his head in the sand as both the major parties in the UK are committed to delivering Brexit and my own view is that the referendum result will be honoured because it is the democratic will of the people of the United Kingdom.
The second is a potential election in the Republic of Ireland. I firmly believe the new Taoiseach will go to the polls in the Autumn to secure his own mandate. At the heart of this election will be the question of who can best deal with the challenges of Brexit to the RoI. Mr Varadkar will wish to portray himself as a tough negotiator and will seek to play down suggestions of painful compromises to an electorate who are deeply concerned about the impacts on their economy and society of a decision they had no part in making.
Political consensus favours a soft border after Brexit, but it’s far from inevitable. We need the Irish government working with us, not against.