State steps up border planning for Brexit

By Elaine Loughlin and Daniel McConnell

Secret plans are being developed to step up checks along the border if a Brexit deal cannot be reached are being made, the Irish Examiner can reveal.

Officials have been reviewing State-owned land and properties, including checkpoint sites which had been used during the Troubles.

While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney have repeatedly stated that there is absolutely no planning being done for a return to a hard border, the Irish Examiner understands that preparations for “all eventualities” are under way.

Mr Coveney has stated that, separate to published contingency planning around ports and airports, work is going on “in the background” to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

Speaking at a Brexit Ready roadshow in Dublin’s Convention Centre last week, Mr Coveney said these plans would be “a much more dramatic response because what that would mean is that we would have to have certain things ready to kick in by March 29 next year and we will have to work with the EU on contingencies for that too”.

On Friday, Mr Varadkar said he was “confident but not complacent” that there will not be a hard border in Ireland.

The Irish Examiner has spoken to numerous sources from across Government agencies who have confirmed that high-level scoping exercise are being carried out around “seeing what type of capacity would be needed” along the border and how that could be provided.

“Things are a lot more advanced than people are saying in public in every aspect in terms of preparing for a no-deal [Brexit],” one insider said.

There are already customs turnoffs. You go up the M1 to Belfast and you see the cut-out that is still there from 20 years ago where people were brought in for customs checks, and it’s probably developing more on existing things.

While the OPW regularly carries out audits of the land and buildings it owns and controls for other departments, it is understood that a new emphasis is being put on the border region, with the M1 specifically being examined.

It is understood that officials looked at land already in State hands along the border with the view to figuring out “how they could incorporate maybe customs or agriculture checkpoints on the land that they have or whether they would have to acquire more land”.

Another Government source said: “They did a survey of the entire border and identified all Government properties.

That surveying work is done every few years, so working off the basis of where do we have properties on the border, a lot of them are old military installations, or the garda station that has been closed in X border town that are still in the ownership of the OPW or the State, zoning of land and things like that.

While the detail and preparing for extra staff and checks on the border is not at the same level as ports and airports, the source said: “There is a context, topographical reports on Monaghan are suddenly being looked at a lot closer, but they are being done anyway.”

A spokesman for the Tánaiste dismissed as “rubbish” claims that preparations and scoping exercises are going on, adding that “under no circumstances will there be a return to the border of the past”.

However, another senior source said: “There is definitely planning taking place, but it is extremely hush hush as to how it is being spoken about and about how it is being driven at secretary general and assistant secretary level.”

However, he added the main focus is still around east-west checks at ports and airports.

Insiders are confident that if Britain does crash out of Europe, Ireland would be given a “grace period” where goods coming here from the UK could be delivered without any checks.

Fianna Fáil Brexit spokeswoman Lisa Chambers, who has complained to the Ceann Comhairle about the lack of information being provided to her about Irish preparations for Brexit, said: “I have been completely stonewalled.”

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