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Brexit Talks Hit Wall on Irish Border Issue

Brussels (GPA– With the Tories refusing to give any ground in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, the question of the border between the [Republic of] Ireland and Northern Ireland is beginning to weigh on London.

Although it is still early in the Brexit negotiation process, one question that continues to plague the U.K. government is the issue of the border between British occupied Northern Ireland and the Republic. If the U.K. fails to reach an agreement on any aspect of Brexit negotiations and ends up leaving the European Union with “no deal,” the border between English occupied Ireland and the rest of the island is likely to be closed in a manner similar to EU borders with non-EU states.

Irish Border
Image: Geograph – Shane Killen

This hard truth was voiced this weekend by Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, who said a “no deal” scenario would be “catastrophic” for the island.

Starmer’s statements don’t just come out of the blue but instead are a product of this past weekend, which has seen a flurry of controversy surrounding Brexit, and Prime Minister Theresa May’s seemingly preemptive acceptance of a “no-deal” scenario. This has caused several Members of Parliament to come forward, warning of the consequences of a Hard Brexit, and pledging to rally Parliament in a vote to prevent it.

Related: U.K. Elections: Tories Election Gamble Fails, May Forms Coalition With DUP

The final deal for the U.K. exit from the EU will need to be voted on by the House of Commons and it is unclear what will happen if the body fails to accept the conditions brought to them by the negotiators. Sir Keir spoke on behalf of Labour, who will obviously vote against any “no-deal” proposal and warned of the implications for the Irish border.

Sir Keir warned of this potential outcome and its implication for the border, saying, “If there’s no deal there is no agreement as to what will happen on the border in Northern Ireland…That means it is inevitable you will have a hard border.” This is not an outcome the Labour party wishes to see, and according to Sir Keir “There’s no way [Labour] would vote for no deal – that would be catastrophic”

While the EU says it does not wish to see customs posts at the Irish border (although most checks would be electronic anyway), it has mandated that some deal needs to be reached on the movement of EU and non-EU people and goods across the border. Currently, the only seemingly possible proposal that has been floated was the idea of using the Irish Sea as a border between the U.K. and EU, essentially making the entirety of Ireland into one special economic zone.

Related: In Wake Of Brexit, Over 100,000 U.K. Companies Register In Ireland

There is, however, one rather large problem with the sea border proposal, and that is Theresa May’s own Parliamentary allies in the far-right Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. The DUP strongly opposes the sea border proposal, which they perceive as a move to essentially reunify Ireland in all but name. The DUP could be right to some extent, and this outcome could make it the case that the U.K. would pull support for the extremists in Northern Ireland, leaving room for possible electoral gains by nationalist Irish parties.

The DUP could be right to some extent, and this outcome could make it the case that the U.K. would pull support for the extremists in Northern Ireland, leaving room for possible electoral gains by nationalist Irish parties. This outcome would be unacceptable to the DUP, as it would also be to the Tories in London who would lose their coalition allies.

Irish Republican politicians, on the other hand, are much more committed to cross-border cooperation. Politicians in Dublin have spent the past several weeks asking for further research and publication of more information on what exactly the effects of several possible border options would be.