Irish Border Issues Loom Large Over Brexit Talks. Could They Derail Them?

Irish Border Issues Loom Large Over Brexit Talks. Could They Derail Them?
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, left, and Irish minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charles Flanagan point to the Irish border crossing near Castleblayney, Ireland, May 12, 2017 (AP photoby Peter Morrison).

While talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union over the terms of Brexit are ongoing, the question of how to sever Northern Ireland from the EU has emerged as a major point of contention. If talks fail, the U.K. will likely exit the EU without a smooth transitional framework in place. That would raise several border issues in Ireland and Northern Ireland and could even threaten the Good Friday peace agreement that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. In an email interview, Frank Barry, a professor of international business and economic development at Trinity College in Dublin, explains why negotiations are proving so difficult and whether these stumbling blocks are insurmountable.

WPR: The Irish border issue, specifically the prospect of a hard customs and immigration border going up between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, looks increasingly like the biggest snag in Brexit talks so far. What solutions or proposals are the different sides—in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels—offering?

Frank Barry: The substantive issue here is rarely spelled out explicitly. It is, as political scientists in Belfast have informed me, that if uniformed customs or immigration officers are placed on the northern side of the border, they will have to be protected by armed police, who will in turn require the protection of the British army. This is because the border areas are the stronghold of dissident Republican factions that have consistently rejected the Good Friday Agreement, which achieved a high degree of consensus across these islands. Stationing troops in the border areas will inevitably lead to clashes, which raises the specter of a return to conflict in Northern Ireland.

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