Border ball back in UK’s court - Avoiding a hard border after Brexit

AS expected, the EU’s draft legal text on Brexit has proposed that Northern Ireland be “considered part of the customs territory of the EU” in the event of the alignment option contained in last December’s political agreement with the UK coming into effect.

According to the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, “the backstop [Option C] is the only way to guarantee that the joint commitments will be upheld in all circumstances” in order to avoid a hard border.

Those comments have already provoked a strong reaction in both London and Belfast. Prime Minister Theresa May insists that the European Commission’s contingency plans for Northern Ireland would undermine the UK’s own common market and threaten its constitutional integrity by creating a regulatory border between the North and the rest of the UK.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has described the text as ‘constitutionally unacceptable’ and said her party will not tolerate Northern Ireland remaining in any form of EU customs union.

However, the DUP is also opposed to a hard border, as is the British government. They cannot have it both ways which means that other options must now be put on the table and, in that respect, the ball is back in Britain’s court.

The Taoiseach was stating the obvious when he said it is now up to Britain to bring alternative proposals. It would have been wiser of him not to make such a provocative remark in view of the fact that he must know that Prime Minister Theresa May is well aware of that.

Neither will Mr Varadkar have won any friends among unionists by stating on Newstalk radio: “One mistake we shouldn’t make is a mistake that a lot of people seem to be making, that one of the political parties, the DUP - as important as it is and as big as it is - speaks for everyone in Northern Ireland.”

Such a crude attempt to diminish the importance of the DUP also pointedly ignores the fact that, even with just 10 Westminster MPs, the party holds the balance of power in the House of Commons and could determine the future of Theresa May’s government.

He is correct, though, in identifying the business community in the North as a powerful group utterly opposed to any new border.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that it was largely the business community – wooed by the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds – that was responsible for pressuring unionists at large to accept the peace process. It was his legendary networking skills as a businessman that helped lay the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement.

Considering that it appears that neither politicians in Brussels, Belfast or London appear capable of coming up with a workable solution to this current impasse, perhaps it is time for leading members of the business community in Northern Ireland to make their views known and insist that the future happiness and prosperity of all the people on the island of Ireland rests with a frictionless border.

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