It would appear that progress towards Brexit is steadfastly slogging on, given that the government seems to have made it across the first hurdle: The Brexit bill. The Pound has been strengthened since this week’s report that the UK was prepared to spend around €50bn to fulfill financial obligations to the EU. 

Sterling has weakened as the second, potentially more challenging obstacle, managing the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, has quickly become a pressing issue. Ireland’s new deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney said today that he believes a breakthrough on the deadlocked border issue is “doable” ahead of the 14 and 15 December EU summit. He optimistically noted that “We’re not where we need to be today but I do think it is possible to get to where we need to be over the next few days.” 

The complex issue has seen a wide range of solutions suggested. The majority of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, so there has been the suggestion of another vote.  At the European Parliament this week, conservative MEP Charles Tannock suggested Northern Ireland have a second referendum on whether they wished to stay in or leave the customs union. The European Parliament put forward the suggestion that the province remain in the customs union and that customs checks be carried out at Irish sea ports.

Don’t “placate Dublin and the EU”

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s main unionist party has warned that Brexit talks threaten to damage the previous deal the DUP has made with the Tories. In June the DUP agreed to support Theresa May’s government policies in exchange for an additional £1bn in funds for Northern Ireland which is to be spent on healthcare and education. 

An article published in the Times this week reported that British and EU officials are close to seeking separate customs measures for Northern Ireland. DUP leader Sammy Wilson warned that as the UK got through the process of the European Withdrawal Bill in the Commons, “If there is any hint that, in order to placate Dublin and the EU, they are prepared to have Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the United Kingdom UK,” the DUP would not support Westminster.

The DUP’s support is essential to the Conservative Party, since Theresa May relies on the party MP for her slim parliamentary majority. This makes the issue of the Irish border the largest and most pressing dilemma ahead for the government before returning to negotiations with EU this month. 

Non-negotiable place in the UK single market

In her article in the Belfast Telegraph today, DUP leader Arlene Foster noted: “In the past 48 hours there has been much speculation around a possible deal between the UK Government and Brussels on how to prevent a hard border after Brexit.” Foster clarifies what’s at stake for Northern Ireland if a border is created in the Irish Sea, pointing out that “Some 72% of trade in and out of Belfast Harbour is with Great Britain.” 

She is against any barriers to trade, pointing out that “almost two thirds of local agri-produce sold within the UK and Northern Ireland manufacturing sales to GB are worth six times as much as those to the Republic of Ireland.” The DUP leader firmly drew the party’s line in the sand, saying: “Our place in the UK single market in non-negotiable.”

The mythical “frictionless border”

The government has offered Northern Ireland two solutions to the border issue, the first one relying on “technology-based solutions” and pre-screening goods to avoid customs checks at the border. The Government’s proposal of creating a “frictionless border” with technology has been dismissed by the Exiting the EU Committee. The influential group of MPs who have studied these plans called them “to some extent speculative”, and obviously, they would be “untested”. 

The Exiting the EU Committee went a step further, saying that the “frictionless” border would be impossible given the government’s decision to withdraw from the European single market and customs union. So much for plan A.

The second scheme is one that the UK admits would be “challenging”. In this scenario, with the UK leaving the single market, there would not be a border, but rather, they would introduce a “customs partnership” between the UK and Northern Ireland. The Committee chair, Labour MP Hilary Benn expressed skepticism, saying “We cannot at present see how leaving the customs union and the single market can be reconciled with there being no border or infrastructure.”

There is agreement between the UK’s committee and the Irish government that the UK needs to provide much more specific detail for each of these plans. While neither party want to build infrastructure at the border or create new barriers for the movement of trade or people, the devil is in the details. The Irish government needs to see more of those finer points because they want to be reassured there won’t be a system of physical checks at the border.  The plot thickens as the Brexit saga continues.