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EU Brexit chief contradicts UK PM over N Ireland border

Seemingly endless debate over Northern Irish border continues as sides gear up for trade talks

Karim El-Bar   | 15.01.2020
EU Brexit chief contradicts UK PM over N Ireland border


The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator pushed back Tuesday against claims by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about frictionless trade in Northern Ireland as both sides gear up for trade talks.

Speaking in the European Parliament on the issue of the Northern Irish border, Michel Barnier said: “The implementation of this foresees checks and controls entering the island of Ireland. I look forward to constructive cooperation with British authorities to ensure that all provisions are respected and made operational.”

This is a direct refusal of comments made by Johnson on Monday, where he said: “Be in no doubt. We are the government of the United Kingdom. I cannot see any circumstances whatever in which they will be any need for checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The only circumstances in which you could imagine the need for checks coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as I’ve explained before, is if those goods were going on into Ireland and we had not secured, which I hope and I’m confident we will, a zero tariff, zero quota agreement with our friends and partners in the EU.”

Great Britain is comprised of England, Wales, and Scotland. When combined with Northern Ireland, it makes up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Following Brexit, the U.K. will leave the EU. This means there will be a border between Northern Ireland, which will be outside the EU, and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain inside the EU. There was no border when the U.K. was in the EU due to the concept of free movement of people, goods, and services, which covered Ireland, Great Britain, and Northern Ireland between each other and the rest of the EU. This will no longer exist post-Brexit.

The issue of the Irish-Northern Irish has been the biggest obstacle in Brexit talks. This is due to the deep desire of the U.K. and Ireland to avoid a so-called “hard border,” i.e. checks and border infrastructure, between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The U.K. suffered a 30-year, low-intensity conflict both in Northern Ireland and the wider U.K. called “the Troubles.” This conflict pitted Northern Irish republican nationalists, who want unification with the Republic of Ireland, against Northern Irish unionists, who want to remain in the U.K. Thousands died in the violence.

It came to an end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, one of the provisions of which was the elimination of the hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are fears on both sides of the border that a return to checks on the border could mean a return to political violence.

The issue has never been resolved in full detail in Brexit talks, with the British government insisting there will be no checks, and the EU asking for either a detailed British alternative, or keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s regulatory orbit.

The latter option would appease nationalists in Northern Ireland, as there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland, but anger unionists, as it would effectively shift the border to the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the Great Britain.

Barnier and Johnson’s competing claims show the issue has yet to be solved. The U.K. is aiming to strike a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU by the end of year.

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