Belfast Telegraph

May and Varadkar in harmony over Brexit border, but issue will make or break a deal

By Ed Curran

Theresa May at Westminster and Leo Varadkar in the Dail sang from the same Brexit hymn-sheet yesterday.

Their duet should have calmed unionists, annoyed and unsettled by the latest news from Brussels proposing that the island of Ireland could become "a common regulatory area ... without internal borders". But whether grassroots unionism should take such reassurances at face value depends on other major and as yet unresolved issues in the negotiations over Brexit.

As of now, it appears everyone is putting the cart before the horse. How can any border be defined today without knowing the future trade arrangements between the UK and the European Union?

Obviously, the need for border controls and checks will depend on what, if any, tariffs are imposed on goods and materials entering and leaving the UK after Brexit.

Mrs May, supported by the DUP, says the answer to the border problem lies with technology, but again no one has defined precisely what this means or how a seamless border can be achieved. The sooner Mrs May does so ,the better, and the more she can put minds at more ease in the business community worried about costly customs delays.

Until a trade agreement is reached later in the year, and until the UK spells out its plans to avoid a hard border, Northern Ireland, not least the unionist community, is left in limbo. Another worrying complication is that a majority of people here supported staying in the EU, and did not vote for this uncertainty in the first place.

The proposition of a border down the Irish Sea, dividing either Northern Ireland from Britain or the Republic as well from Britain, is hugely premature, but it drew the Prime Minister and Taoiseach to speak as they did yesterday.

"No Prime Minister could ever agree to a border down the Irish Sea," said Mrs May. Now she needs to go further and spell out her alternative more convincingly than she has done to date.

Mr Varadkar said a tariff-free Brexit deal was the best option. He did not want a border between Britain and the Republic any more than one between north and south.

"I do not want a border between Letterkenny and Derry any more than I want a border between Larne and Stranraer," he said.

Nevertheless, no one knows the eventual outcome of the talks between London and Brussels. Nothing is ever agreed until everything is agreed. The public here, already spooked by the revelations of the Stormont talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, faces a further unsettling period with no Stormont Executive to take account of Brexit developments crucial to the future of Northern Ireland. Quite what Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill hope to achieve by going together to Brussels next week is anybody's guess.

Two leaders who cannot agree with one another to form an Executive after 14 months of talks and stand-offs are hardly likely to impress the European Union with much joint wisdom about Brexit.

At least they are making an effort - and for that everyone should be grateful. But it is hard to see Arlene, an avid Brexiteer, and Michelle, playing her united Ireland Remainer card for all its worth, finding much, if any, common ground.

A border down the Irish Sea? London-style, congestion zone cameras prying on cross-border traffic here? Joint UK-EU customs checks at ports and airports across Northern Ireland? Or no border at all?

After yesterday's proposals from the European Union, are we really any the wiser? The truth appears to be that for all the negotiations which went on between the British, the Irish, Foster on the phone to May, and the mandarins of the European Union, the future of Northern Ireland is centre stage once again.

Just as Margaret Thatcher said No, No and No again to Dublin in 1985, so May said No again yesterday in the House of Commons to any suggestion that Northern Ireland might be annexed by customs checks from Great Britain. These are dangerous constitutional times for unionism, just as they were nearly a century ago when Edward Carson saw off Home Rule.

Just as they were in 1985 when Thatcher, for all her emphatic use of the word No, succumbed to the Anglo-Irish agreement. Just as they were when the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble made his deal with Irish nationalism on Good Friday 1998.

Today, a new challenge appears. The future global standing of the UK and its relationship with Europe is at stake. History is in the making in 2018 but this tiny peripheral island stands in the way or otherwise of the big powers reaching a deal.

The unionist community can only hope that those whom they have charged to speak for them at this historic turning-point for Europe are up to the task.

Belfast Telegraph

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