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The Brexit vote has created a united Ireland, at least when it comes to the border

The virtually unmarked Irish-UK border near the Northern Irish town of Newry, UK - Credit: DPA/PA Images

New Irish premier Leo Varadkar will play a defining role

Ireland’s new prime minister, or taoiseach, Leo Varadkar was thrust into the headlines across Europe last week.

A series of reports on the future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland suggested Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, could effectively be cut off with the imposition of a ‘sea border’ around Britain.

Dublin went on to downplay the sea border issue, while London rubbished it; a spokesman for the British Government said: ‘We cannot create a Border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain’. Nevertheless, more than a year since the referendum result delivered a political earthquake in Britain, the actual reality of Brexit remains a mystery, not least in Ireland.

The Irish border is a thorny issue for all parties to the Brexit negotiations, not only because it will become the UK’s only land border with the EU, but also because of the contested political status of Northern Ireland, as well as the
potential impact customs controls would have on the economy of the Republic of Ireland.

Although some have expressed concern about the possibility of a return to violence – police union the Police Federation of Northern Ireland said it would put officers ‘in the terrorist firing line’ – few seriously believe that even a hard border would reignite the conflict in Northern Ireland. What it will do, however, is seriously inconvenience the 30,000 people who cross the border daily, as well as enflame a renewed sense of grievance among nationalists already angered by Brexit and feeling increasingly cut off from the rest of Ireland.

It will also have inevitable economic consequences, with customs checks severely hampering trade now all but guaranteed.

The difficulty facing Varadkar and his government is that with Britain having stated it will leave both the single market and the customs union, some kind of border controls are inevitable. What form they take on remains far from clear, and will be a major test for of the Irish premier and his negotiating team.

Since becoming British prime minister Theresa May has been adamant that her goal is a ‘frictionless border’ in Ireland, but just what this would mean in practice remains decidedly unclear – the Irish government has dismissed British suggestions of a surveillance-heavy techno-frontier.

Today, the border is invisible, with the only notable changes being the speed limit signs being marked in miles per hour in Northern Ireland and kilometres per hour in the Republic, as well as the colour of road markings. There are no immigration controls, no customs checks and, since the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland, no military installations marking out territory. And now Ireland’s new taoiseach, unwillingly, may find himself presiding over the reintroduction of the hated border.

Varadkar is popular, at least enjoying a honeymoon period having won the leadership of the centre right Fine Gael party and assumed the office of taoiseach on June 14. Attempts to position his image in the mould of French president Emmanuel Macron and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau greatly simplify Irish politics but, for his part, Varadkar seems to enjoy the comparison, engaging in a cringeworthy sock comparing photo opportunity during a state visit by Trudeau.

Indeed, much of the world’s press has fallen over itself to portray Varadkar as the latest addition to the Macon-Trudeau axis of well turned-out young leaders who will save the world from populist passions. He even made the front cover of Time magazine, albeit the European edition.

The comparison is not entirely inapt: Varadkar is young, enthusiastically pro-EU and, by Irish standards, a straightforward figure. Irish politics tends to be dominated by local issues rather than ideas or ideology, but Varadkar projects a harder-nosed image than Irish politicians typically have.

Despite this, his programme has been criticised as amounting to little more than business as usual: keep the foreign-direct investment (FDI) money rolling-in, and the country will sort itself out.

Speaking to Time, Varadkar said that divisions between left and right and capital and labour were outdated: hardly a novel observation, but one that seems oddly tone deaf in a world – and country – still reeling from the 2008 economic crash and mired in serious a housing crisis.

The economy is improving – unemployment has dropped from 15% at the nadir of the crash to 6% today – but part of the cost of recovery was a return to mass emigration, Ireland’s traditional economic pressure valve. An estimated 200,000 people fled between 2008 and 2016; a not insignificant number in a nation with a population of only slightly more than four million.

On Brexit, Varadkar has been firm: Ireland will not be following its neighbour out of the EU. Of course, this is no surprise: Ireland’s economy is dependent on FDI that would disappear overnight if the country lost access to the single market. Even Ireland’s eurosceptic left appears to recognise this; despite having strongly criticised the terms of the EU/ECB/IMF bailout regime in Ireland, it rarely openly advocates leaving the bloc.

Addressing the question of the Irish border, Varadkar last week told reporters that the onus lies with Britain to come up with a workable solution.

‘What we’re not going to do is to design a border for the Brexiteers because they’re the ones who want a border. It’s up to them to say what it is, say how it would work and first of all convince their own people, their own voters, that this is actually a good idea. As far as this government is concerned, there shouldn’t be an economic border. We don’t want one,’ he said.

Varadkar’s statement followed a report in The Times newspaper saying minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney, who also ran in the Fine Gael leadership race, suggested the Irish government’s preferred plan was a sea border, with customs and immigration checks happening only on entry to Britain itself rather than between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. While such a plan makes practical sense – travellers between Britain and Northern Ireland must already show photographic ID, if not a passport – it proved politically explosive.

Coveney later denied making the suggestion, but both it and Varadkar’s statements were met with complaints from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), now emboldened in its role in propping-up May’s minority government in Westminster.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds dismissed statements from Dublin as ‘politicking’ for a domestic audience in the Republic of Ireland.

In Dublin ‘confusion seems to be the order of the day,’ he said.

He also slammed Varadkar for making what he called an ‘intemperate outburst’, and accused Coveney of ‘adopting the language of [Irish republicans] Sinn Féin’.

Ironically, Varadkar and Coveney’s Fine Gael party is not known for its enthusiasm for Irish unification. And yet, as we are beginning to see, Brexit has changed the political landscape outside Britain. His predecessor Enda Kenny, secured a statement from the EU that if the people of Northern Ireland voted to unify with the Republic then it would automatically gain membership of the bloc, which though hardly surprising rankled with Northern Irish unionists. What more immediate changes lie in wait remains to be seen.

For Varadkar, though, the fact remains that until the UK reveals what its ultimate goal is for Brexit, it will be impossible to solve the question of the Irish border.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Paris. Previously, he was the Ireland correspondent of the Boston-based CS Monitor newspaper.

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