The Irish question in the Brexit negotiations will not be an easy one to answer

The new face of Ireland showed itself at Queen’s University, Belfast. Young, pragmatic, modern, mixed heritage, gay, reforming, European in outlook – the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is about as far away from the old hidebound image of an Irish statesman as it is possible to get. He has also has an economic and political problem at least as substantial as any that have faced his predecessors: Brexit.

Once again the Irish government have voiced its concerns about Brexit, and especially the consequences for Northern Ireland’s economy and stumbling power-sharing executive. In fact Mr Varadkar and his colleagues are preaching to the converted, if that’s not too religiose a phrase. Theresa May and every other British politician also says that they do not want a hard border between the two parts of Ireland, no matter the terms of Brexit. The Northern Ireland Executive, if it has a voice during its current absence, would say the same, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists united on that at least. Almost every citizen of whatever entity on the island of Ireland – including EU nationals from beyond the islands living and working there – would obviously concur. The European Union itself, and its chief negotiator Michel Barnier, has also pledged itself to put the Irish border question at the top of the agenda, and to resolve it swiftly. The Leave and Remain camps during the referendum and since, often so tribally divided, also agreed that the Irish border question should not and would not become a “problem”.

EU’s Michel Barnier warns of Brexit ‘cost’ in address to Ireland’s parliament

And yet it is. That is because none of the permutations being openly discussed on all sides actually show much sign of being practical across a highly porous 350 mile border. Sometimes the analogy is made between the EU’s other western land border, between EU member Sweden and non-member Norway. Yet Norway, as a member of the European Economic Area and in the EU Single Market, and Britain may not end up in that space. Norway is also a party to the Schengen Agreement on passport-free movement of people, something inconceivable for the UK (or Ireland for that matter). Neither do Sweden and Norway carry anything like the baggage of the Troubles to sour the political and cultural aspects of their relationship. The lorries trundling unhindered around Scandinavia, in other words, offer only a limited degree of hope for a solution to the Irish border…

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