Irish Government Considers Border Demand as Price for Brexit Progress

  • Ireland considers seeking formal frontier pledge from May, EU
  • Irish seek to exploit their leverage before talks move on

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Ireland’s government is considering pushing for guarantees that no border will be reimposed on the island of Ireland as the price for allowing Brexit talks to move ahead, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Irish authorities are keen to use their leverage in the first part of the negotiations to extract maximum concessions on the border issue, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the deliberations are ongoing. That could mean turning U.K. and European Union aspirations to avoid a hard border into a concrete commitment, the people said.

No final decision on the government’s strategy has been made, they said. One of the considerations being mulled is whether to seek to have such a commitment inserted into a summit declaration or if a verbal pledge would be sufficient, according to the people. The foreign ministry in Dublin declined to comment.

The border is one of three key issues that have been identified, along with citizens’ rights and money owed by the U.K., that require “sufficient progress” toward a resolution before the EU will allow talks to move on to Britain’s future trade relationship with the bloc. The U.K. has yet to be convinced of the need for the type of language the Irish are seeking, which would reflect the unique circumstances Northern Ireland faces following Brexit, the people said.

Such wording would effectively commit the U.K. and the EU to the idea of a bespoke deal for Northern Ireland, should the two sides fail to reach the type of a free-trade accord that would eliminate the need for a border.  The U.K. has said it wants to leave the single market and customs union -- which make a borderless Ireland possible now -- but it wants as frictionless a frontier as possible. It has said it doesn’t want to go back to the borders of the past, when military check points marked the frontier.

After the U.K. leaves the union, Ireland’s 310-mile (500-kilometer) border running from near Derry in the north to Dundalk in the south will form the EU’s land border with Britain. Checks have largely melted away after a peace agreement in the 1990s and both countries joined the single market.

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Such a deal might involve designating the region as some special economic zone or allowing the same regulatory standards to apply on both sides of the border.

Ireland won’t push for the phrase “special status” for Northern Ireland to be included, due to the political sensitivities facing Theresa May’s government in London, the people said. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is propping up the Conservatives, placing them in a pivotal position as Brexit talks unfold. The DUP, which backed Brexit in last year’s vote, has rejected the idea of a special deal for the region.

Northern Ireland

Instead, the Irish will seek to present the outcome as a win-win for Northern Ireland, in that the area effectively would avoid a hard border with the south, while retaining its relationship with the rest of the U.K.

Persuading the U.K. and the EU to sign up to a commitment to avoid a hard border would also protect the Irish government from political criticism that it’s allowed the island to be effectively re-partitioned.

To be sure, Ireland faces a dilemma on pushing ahead with a demand for such an agreement, as it could risk holding up the trade talks Ireland is keen to see start. With about 15 percent of its exports going to Britain, Ireland is the EU nation most exposed to Brexit.

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