Everything you need to know about Brexit talks on Ireland’s border

Smile through the pain.
Smile through the pain.
Image: Reuters/Yves Herman
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The Irish border has become a crucial issue in the Brexit negotiations. Without a deal on the status of the Irish border that satisfies the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the European Union (EU), Britain isn’t able to kick-start trade talks.

But who are the biggest players in nailing out a deal and what does everyone want? Quartz rounded up the twist and turns of the negotiations so far—and everything you need to know—to understand what’s at stake.

Why is the Irish border a contentious issue?

As Quartz has written before; the Irish border, which separates Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, was once a flash point of violence during the thirty-year conflict known as “The Troubles.” From 1968 to 1998, an estimated 3,600 people lost their lives during the conflict, while 50,000 people were physically maimed or injured.

At the heart of the conflict was Northern Ireland’s constitutional status; with the unionist and protestant majority wanting to remain within the UK, while the Republican and Catholic minority wanting to be part of the Republic of Ireland.

Watchtowers and heavily militarized patrols quickly became the norm on the border, which spans 499 km (310 miles). But the violence finally came to end once the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1997. Security checkpoints and armed British security forces were dismantled as Republicans and Unionists agreed to a power-sharing assembly.

What does the border look like now?

The border is barely noticeable now. This is thanks to the Irish peace process and the launch of the EU single market. Goods and people flow freely from Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. The Common Travel Area, which facilitates this soft border, sees the UK and Ireland work closely together to maintain peace.

Why has Brexit complicated this?

Despite voting to remain within the EU, Northern Ireland will have to leave along with the rest of the UK. With the border between Northern and the rest of Ireland now an external frontier of the EU, some fear that Brexit could see a return to a “hard border,” which risks destabilizing the 20-year peace process.

The UK will be leaving the single market and negotiating a new customs agreement. Earlier this year, May insisted her government would work to “deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the UK’s immigration system.”

While all parties involved in the Brexit negotiations have been clear they want to avoid any return to the “borders of the past,” no one can agree on what the border should look like once the UK leaves the EU.

What does Ireland want?

The Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, has made it clear that Ireland would not support progress on Brexit talks without a formal written guarantee there would be no hard border in Ireland.

Varadkar has previously suggested that if the UK doesn’t want to stay in the single market “perhaps it could enter into a deep free-trade agreement with the EU and rejoin EFTA—of which it was a member prior to accession—or the European Economic Area.”

Varadkar argument echoes the former head of the European Commission’s customs procedure, who has previously said that while some border controls would return at the Irish border after Brexit, these border checks could be minimized if Ireland and Northern Ireland could recreate the unique border agreement at the Norwegian-Swedish border. Traffic into Norway is checked once by Norwegian customs, while Swedish customs officials check traffic in Sweden. This border agreement is largely possible, however, because Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), a membership which the British government is currently not pursuing.

What does the EU want?

 The EU will stand with Ireland. In fact, Ireland will have the final say on whether Brexit negotiations can move to the next stage, Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, has said.

“Let me say very clearly: if the UK offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU. I realise that for some British politicians this may be hard to understand,” said Tusk. He went on to say, in Irish Gaelic, “Ní neart go cur le chéile.” (There is no strength without unity).

What solution has the UK offered?

Reports suggested that UK prime minister Theresa May was close to an agreement with Ireland and the EU on the border issue. All sides were reasonably optimistic that there would be a deal yesterday morning (Dec. 5), but that quickly changed as the day wore on.

A draft text of the agreement was reportedly leaked to RTE, Ireland’s public broadcaster. According to the draft, the UK conceded to the EU that there would be “no divergence from those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North South cooperation and the protection of the Good Friday agreement.”

While it wasn’t crystal clear what the text meant by “no divergence” between Ireland and Northern Ireland, some suggested it could mean that Northern Ireland gets a special Brexit deal in which it can remain in the single market and the customs union, while the rest of the UK leaves.

What does this mean for Scotland and London


The Brexit vote highlighted deep divisions within the UK. While England and Wales voted overwhelming to exit the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. Crucially, the UK’s capital London had also voted to remain. A point London Mayor Sadiq Khan was keen to stress.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon also took to Twitter to make her case that Scotland should also be allowed to remain in the single market.

How did Northern Ireland respond?

Unionists in Northern Ireland were not pleased with the leaked draft text of the deal. Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster said: “”Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK. We will not accept any terms that separate Northern Ireland economically or politically from the UK.”

Foster accused Ireland of “trying to change terms of Belfast agreement without our input or consent.”

What does this mean for Brexit?

In a rather awkward press conference May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, had to concede that they couldn’t come to a deal yesterday. The intervention by the DUP has widely been seen as the reason why a deal couldn’t be reached.

“Despite our best efforts and the significant process we and our teams have made in the past days on the remaining withdrawal issues, it was not possible to reach a complete agreement today,” Juncker said during a joint press conference with May. The UK prime minister added: “We will reconvene before the end of the week and I am also confident that we will conclude this positively.”

May is under pressure to get a deal on the border before European leaders meet on Dec. 14  to decide whether to start talks on a post-Brexit trade. For now, however, it’s back to the drawing board.