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27 November 2017

Could Brexit come unstuck because of the Irish border?

This issue was the most predictable of all the difficulties of Britain leaving the EU.

By Stephen Bush

Over before Christmas? The question of the Irish border shows no sign of being answered or even, as the British government would like, parked until negotiations move on from legacy issues to the future relationship.

Is Liam Fox right to say that the question of the Irish border cannot be resolved until the terms of trade between the United Kingdom and the European Union are? Well, yes and no. The exact operation of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland hinges on what the exact final relationship is.

But we already know that under the terms of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, we are heading for a hard border between the two nations, as we are leaving the customs union and seeking regulatory divergence from EU27, which means that there will have to be physical and infrastructure and customs checks, whether in the Irish sea or on the island of Ireland. That means that as far as the Irish government goes, whoever is in power, their political interests remain the same: to make certain that hard border is at sea, not on land. That means using their veto power, whether in December or in March 2019.

I don’t wish to go over the ins and outs of the problem – after all, I did that last week – but it is worth noting one additional element to all this: which is that the question of the Irish border was the most predictable of all the difficulties of Brexit. We are leaving a free trade area, and the nation we share a land border with is not.

The historic sensitivities of this particular border ought to have focused minds, yes, but that Brexit would require navigating an exit in which Ireland could always wield its veto should have meant that the Brexiteers had a workable solution in their back pocket for years, even if the worst thing ever to happen on the Irish border had been some raised voices over the proper care of a few hedgerows.

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The simple truth is that if Brexit comes unstuck because of the Irish border it will be because the Brexit elite simply wasn’t serious.