UK MPs warn post-Brexit Irish border checks inevitable | News | DW | 01.12.2017
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UK MPs warn post-Brexit Irish border checks inevitable

Border checks between the Republic and Northern Ireland will be inevitable after the UK leaves the EU, a UK parliamentary committee has said. The issue is a sticking point ahead of a key EU summit on Brexit in two weeks.

The UK parliament's Exiting the EU Committee said on Friday morning that the government's decision to withdraw from the European single market and customs union were impossible to reconcile with a "frictionless" Irish border.

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"We cannot at present see how leaving the customs union and the single market can be reconciled with there being no border or infrastructure," said opposition Labour Party MP Hilary Benn, chair of the committee — a panel of MPs whose role is to scrutinize the Brexit talks.

The border will be the only land link between the EU and the UK after Brexit.

London wants to withdraw from the customs union — within which goods can move freely — but has said it will not reimpose border posts, which many have said might upset the last 20 years of peace in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland witnessed 28 years of violence between a predominantly Irish nationalist Catholic community and the pro-British unionist Protestant community. Over 3,500 people were killed in the conflict, known as "the Troubles."

A peace deal was agreed in 1997 with the help of US assistance under then-US President Bill Clinton. The Good Friday Agreement, signed the following year, has largely determined the political situation since.

The committee said the government "must work to ensure goods flow freely at UK borders regardless of whether a deal is struck before Britain leaves the EU in March 2019." 

It also urged the government to explain its strategy for the two-year transition period after Britain's exit.

It said the British government's proposals for handling the issue — which include technology to create a "light touch" border — were "untested and, to some extent, speculative."

The committee, which based its report on evidence from Brexit minister David Davis, said the government needed to publish more detail on its short-term plans for a transition period and its long-term vision of a future trading relationship with the EU.

"If phase two of the talks do start next month, then ministers need to move beyond words like ‘bespoke' and ‘special' and actually explain what it is they are seeking," Benn said.

He added that the rights of EU nationals living in the UK and vice-versa should be guaranteed, regardless of whether there was a wider deal.

Some pro-Brexit MPs from Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party declined to support the committee's statement.

Unblocking the talks

London wants Brexit negotiations to move on to trade talks at the December 14-15 EU summit in Brussels, where EU leaders will decide if London has made "sufficient progress" on divorce issues.

But Ireland's new deputy prime minister Simon Coveney, who also serves as the country's foreign minister, said on Friday that the talks would not advance unless the UK government can provide a concrete solution that would avoid the return of a hard border to the island of Ireland.

He told the BBC that the UK needs "to give reassurance that there will not be regulatory divergence between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland", meaning effectively no need for border checks of any kind. 

Northern Irish-Irish border sign (Getty Images/C. McQuillan)

Irish commuters currently face no customs checks when they cross the border

The issue has gone from garnering relatively little attention in the earlier stages of the Brexit negotiations to becoming perhaps the most challenging stumbling block.

Reports in Ireland overnight suggest that talks on the issue between the EU and the British government have intensified in recent days, with suggestions that the UK may be willing to make concessions to the Irish and the EU on the matter.

Those reports have alarmed members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland. The DUP strongly campaigned for Brexit and their support is currently crucial to the survival of Theresa May's government in Westminster.

They have repeatedly warned against any arrangement which would see Northern Ireland treated differently to the rest of the UK.

"If there is any hint that in order to placate Dublin and the EU they’re prepared to have Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the UK then they can’t rely on our vote," said long-serving DUP MP Sammy Wilson.

EU President Donald Tusk will travel to Dublin later on Friday for talks with Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar, in an attempt to gain further clarity on the issue holding up a Brexit deal with Britain.

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amp, jbh/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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