Brexit: What Is The Irish Border Problem?

15 October 2018, 10:14 | Updated: 15 October 2018, 12:13

As Brexit negotiations struggle to come to an agreement, what is the Irish border problem and why is it causing so much headache for Theresa May and EU leaders?

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab met with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Sunday for unscheduled talks about "key issues" including the Irish border, with speculation that a Brexit deal had been reached between the two sides.

However Mr Barnier has denied this is the case, and the issue of avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland are now unlikely to be resolved before the October European Council.

The prime minister will be travelling to Brussels on Wednesday for the summit, where both sides hope to sign off on a draft withdrawal agreement setting out the terms for Britain's divorce from the EU.

- Brexit: A timeline of key events.

- Theresa May's Chequers plan explained.

What is the problem with a hard border on Ireland?

Ireland joined the European Union in 1973 at the same time that Northern Ireland did as part of the United Kingdom.

Goods, services, and people are able to travel freely between these two countries as they both follow the same restrictions of movement.

As a result of Brexit, Northern Ireland will also be leaving the EU with the rest of the UK.

This means that for the first time, the UK will have a land border with the European Union in the Republic of Ireland, where different restrictions on movement apply to each side.

However to protect the Belfast Agreement (known more commonly as 'The Good Friday Agreement'), leaders across Europe have agreed that there will be "no hard border" on the border, but also that the "constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom" will be maintained.

The EU and UK both want to maintain the free flow of goods without border checks because of fears of a return to The Troubles, and Cabinet ministers at Theresa May's Chequers summit agreed the UK's position is that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Both the UK and EU have promised to 'protect North-South co-operation', and a backstop was put in place should a trade deal not be reached before Brexit.

What is the Good Friday Agreement?

The Belfast Agreement, commonly known as the 'Good Friday Agreement' was signed in 1998 to bring an end to the 30-year period of conflict, known as 'The Troubles'.

The conflict in Northern Ireland started when it became separated from the rest of Ireland in the early 1920s. Ireland split off from British rule, leaving Northern Ireland as part of the UK and creating a separate country of the Republic of Ireland.

But the separation of Ireland saw a series of protests on both sides become violent, and British troops were deployed to the region. But they came into conflict with Republican armed groups, the most prominent being called the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The IRA were responsible for deadly bombings in Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Belfast agreement set out how Northern Ireland should be governed, and aimed to set up a power-sharing arrangement between nationalist and unionist parties. This created the Northern Ireland Assembly that took devolved powers from Westminster in London.

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) signed the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday, on the 10th April 1998.

What is the Irish border 'backstop'?

The Irish border backstop is the position of last resort to protect the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The backstop agreement is that the UK, or part of the UK, would remain part of the Customs Union.

Theresa May has insisted that any backstop arrangement should apply to the whole UK, but the EU's position is that a backstop arrangement only includes Northern Ireland - creating a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The EU's position threatens the "constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom" that had been promised to be maintained, however Theresa May's stance threatens trust in the people who voted for Brexit, as the whole of the UK staying in the Customs Union is not seen by those who voted to leave the European Union as 'a true Brexit'.

But a poll by LBC revealed that more people thought leaving the European Union is more of a priority than keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.

- LBC Poll: Brits would rather leave EU than keep Northern Ireland in the UK.

The Democratic Unionist Party has vowed to oppose any new checks on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Ireland Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Ireland Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Picture: PA

The Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar has said that Ireland is not planning for a hard border with Northern Ireland, and has been adamant that even if a no-deal Brexit happens, a physical border is not an option.

He said: “I don’t believe a no-deal scenario is where we are heading. Certainly Ireland is prepared for it, we have already started the process of hiring hundreds of people to staff our ports and airports. We have also started to recruit the IT system, the infrastructure that may need to go into place. And I want to emphasise that is in the ports and the airports for east-west trade, we are not making any preparations for any form of hard border between North and South.

“Ireland would very much suffer in a no-deal scenario. We don’t want that to happen. I think the UK would suffer a lot as well. That’s why we need to redouble our efforts, aim to have an agreement in principle in October.”

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