How Ireland's Border Became a Bigger Brexit Issue: QuickTake Q&A

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The U.K. Snap Election in 60 Seconds

The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be the only land crossing between the U.K. and the European Union after Britain leaves the bloc. How it’s managed has become one of the key questions to be resolved in the Brexit negotiations, with both sides agreeing that people and goods should be able to move seamlessly back and forth. Now that the U.K.’s Conservative Party is turning to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to form a government after the June 8 election, the border is likely to take on a more central role in the talks. Nearly two decades after the end of a conflict that claimed 3,500 lives, worries remain that a so-called hard border between north and south could lead to a return to violence.

1. Why is there a border?

The 310-mile (500 kilometer) border has existed since 1922, when the island was partitioned as part of a peace agreement between the U.K. government and Irish rebels seeking independence. As part of the deal, Northern Ireland, where the population is majority Protestant, remained part of the U.K., which binds together England, Scotland and Wales. The mostly Catholic southern part of the island became the Irish Free State, and gained full independence in 1948.

2. How has it affected Ireland?

The border has been a symbol of British rule almost since it was created. With customs and later military checkpoints positioned at crossings between the two countries, it has been a flashpoint for decades. The Irish Republican Army, which wants a united Ireland, waged a bombing campaign along the border in the 1950s and 1960s. Violence between republican and unionist paramilitary groups claimed about 3,500 lives from the 1970s onwards before the arrival of the European single market and a peace accord in the 1990s.

3. What does it look like today?

Border controls between Northern Ireland and the south, which is both part of the EU and the common euro currency, largely melted away after the peace agreement, leaving shoppers and traders free to cross back and forth. A change in road signs and the money used are now almost the only indications that a person has moved into a different jurisdiction. An estimated 30,000 people pass through 300 different crossings every day.

4. What could happen after Brexit?

Under normal circumstances, there might be expectations of a return of customs and security checks. Cross-border trade is worth more than 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) a year, the Irish government estimates, and nobody wants to disrupt that if possible. Both the U.K. and Irish governments have said they want the border to be “frictionless,” with minimum disruption or delays. Still, it’s not clear how that will be done. If Britain leaves the EU without a new trade deal, U.K. exports could run into the EU’s common external tariff, which now averages about 5 percent across all goods. The vision sketched out by Irish authorities involves setting “trade-facilitation areas” 10 to 15 kilometers away from sensitive crossings, randomly checking about 2 percent of traffic and using cross-border intelligence operations and electronic surveillance to target suspect activity.

5. What role does the border play in Brexit?

Keeping the border open is one of the crucial Brexit divorce terms. The EU says it needs to be advanced before talks can move on to any future trade relationship with Britain. The government in London sees a common travel area between north and south as key to maintaining peace on the divided island and says the issue could be an early roadblock in the negotiations. French farmers are already objecting to an open border because of concern cheaper non-European imports will infiltrate the EU via the U.K. border.

6. How does the U.K. election change things?

As U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May fights to stay in power, her Conservative Party is seeking the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, to prop up the government. A deal with the DUP, which wants Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K., would call into question how the government can retain the role of honest broker in Northern Ireland. Under the peace accord, the London government serves as an impartial facilitator in maintaining a power-sharing agreement between nationalist parties, which want a united Ireland, and unionists. Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed in January and talks to restart it resumed June 12. Nationalists have already questioned whether the U.K. can remain independent in the talks. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has warned May that nothing should put the peace agreement at risk.

7. What is the DUP’s position on the border?

The DUP backed leaving the EU, even though the province is among the U.K.’s largest recipients of EU aid. It also wants a “frictionless” border. The party has yet to spell out in detail a position on Europe’s customs union, which allows for tariff-free trade within the bloc. An exit will make it harder to keep the border with the rest of Ireland open. Industry and farming groups have made clear they want the U.K. to stay in the customs union.

8. Will a hard border lead to the return of violence?

Customs and security checks would likely hurt the economy on both sides of the border. They would also create a daily reminder to some of British rule of Northern Ireland. While the province has been at peace for nearly two decades, Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s former deputy leader, warned in 2016 that the reintroduction of a border following Brexit could aid those who oppose the region’s peace process. McGuinness died in March.

The Reference Shelf

  • A look at how the border could impact the production of Guinness.
  • A QuickTake Q&A on Europe’s customs union.
  • A city on the front line worries if Brexit will bring back the violence of the past.
  • Why a Conservative Party deal with the DUP may lead to a softer Brexit.
  • A report from the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce on Brexit’s impact on Ireland.
  • A report from Dublin-based think tank ESRI on the impact of a hard Brexit.
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