The Irish border is currently the focus of Brexit discussions – but it is only one part of the puzzle
In recent days, there has been a flurry of media and political attention on the question of avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. As Adrian O’Neill, the Irish Ambassador to the UK, set out at the IfG recently, the Irish Government has been clear that it needs a guarantee of no hard border to approve the beginning of talks on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
But the Ambassador also pointed out that Brexit raises many other issues for both parts of Ireland. While the border question is attracting attention now, it is only one of a long list of issues that needs to be discussed.
Ambassador O’Neill outlined Ireland’s views on Brexit. He pointed out that the current situation on Ireland, including the open border, is underpinned by both Ireland’s and the UK’s membership of the EU. The EU’s Single Market and Customs Union did away with the need for controls on goods crossing the border, and the Good Friday Agreement removed controls on people crossing the border. In his view, the Good Friday Agreement was “as much an achievement” of the EU as it was of the UK and Irish governments.
What’s more, O’Neill suggested that the genesis of the peace process was in both countries’ status as EU members. He said that after Ireland and the UK joined the then European Economic Community in 1973, ministers and officials from both governments met much more regularly than previously. This allowed the two governments to build relationships that served as the basis for the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.
As the Ambassador put it, Ireland and the UK were “partners in the EU before they were partners in peace.”
The Good Friday Agreement established power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties in Belfast and the North-South Ministerial Council to facilitate co-operation between Belfast and Dublin.
Many areas of cross-border co-operation have developed within the EU rules and regulations which apply across the whole island. Since the EU referendum, the UK and Ireland have identified 142 areas of co-operation that currently function within EU frameworks.
These areas of cross-border co-operation include healthcare, energy and animal health. Because rules in these areas are set at EU level, authorities in both parts of the island can work together easily – they do not have to comply with different sets of rules. The Ambassador said if the EU framework falls away, that co-operation will become more difficult.
Ambassador O’Neill made clear that the Irish Government’s objective is to “maintain the status quo” in the relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland. He reiterated Ireland’s preferred position that the UK does not leave the Single Market or the Customs Union. Such a close trading relationship would facilitate ongoing North-South co-operation, maintain the open border and allow for easier trade between Ireland, the UK and the rest of the EU.
But the UK has been clear it intends to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. Ambassador O’Neill expressed the view that “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland, or the whole UK, and the EU is not the only way to avoid a hard border, but that the Irish Government needs some form of commitment from the UK that there will not be a hard border, regardless of how this is delivered.
The Ambassador was equally clear that Dublin is not seeking to change the current constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland, noting that the Good Friday Agreement is the basis for that settlement.
The focus in recent days has been on how to resolve Dublin’s concerns about a hard border on the island. But that is only the tip of the Irish iceberg. A solution will eventually be found which will pave the way for the next phase of negotiations. That is when the difficult discussions will really begin.
Read our explainer on how Brexit will affect UK-Ireland relations.