Hard-right Tories and British tabloids have expressed fury after the EU and the Dublin government both insisted on a British commitment that there will be no ‘hard border’ -- physical installations or patrols -- following Britain’s departure from the EU.
The issue threatens to derail Brexit talks and has added to pressure on the Tory/Unionist alliance in the London government which has failed to justify the consequences of Brexit in the face of a growing rebellion at Westminster.
The Dublin government accused Mrs May’s government of failing to provide “real answers” to concerns about the future of the border, which remains critical to the credibility of the Irish peace process.
Government officials have said they do not want the Border being used as a “gun” by Britain to pressure the EU into concessions. Such a commitment now would remove that threat, it was suggested, and would allow the Brexit talks to progress.
But the British decision to “unilaterally” rule out important options in the Brexit talks has prompted Ireland and the EU to set their own non-negotiable red lines, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the British prime minister, Theresa May, on Friday.
It was necessary to do so, he said, to “set the parameters” of the next phase of talks, on trade and Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
“What we want to take off the table, before we even talk about trade, is any idea that there would be a hard Border, a physical Border, or a Border resembling the past . . . Then we’d be happy to move on to phase two,” the Taoiseach told journalists while attending a summit in Sweden.
The meeting was forthright, he said. “Each clearly understands the other’s position.”
At the heart of the deadlock is the Irish and EU insistence that London explain now how it can preserve a “soft” or “frictionless” Border across Ireland. London has sought to fudge the issue. It has insisted the border cannot be tackled until the EU agrees to move to discussion of trade.
Speaking in Dublin on Friday, his first visit since being appointed Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson echoed the Tory line.
“In order to resolve those issues and get it right for our peoples, it is necessary now to move on to the second stage of the negotiations, which really entail so many of the questions that are bound up around the Border issue,” he said.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said all parties wanted to move on but added: “We are not in a place right now that allows us to do that.” Speaking at Fine Gael’s party conference in County Cavan he insisted Dublin’s position was consistent, firm and stubborn. “On this island we are in the business of building bridges not borders,” he said.
Leo Varadkar repeated his insistence that London “can’t have its cake and eat it” by enjoying trade agreements with non-EU countries and the EU at the same time while ignoring the border issue. He dismissed Ms May’s claim that negotiations on the future land border are almost resolved as “wishful thinking”.
European Council president Donald Tusk has set a two-week deadline for the British government to make further movement on the border issue if it is to agree to begin trade talks, but Varadkar has said he is willing to wait longer.
“Before we move to phase two talks on trade, we want taken off the table any suggestion that there will be a physical border, a hard border, new barriers to trade on the island of Ireland,” he told reporters.
“If we have to wait until the New Year, if we have to wait for further concessions, so be it.”
In a damning assessment of the Tories’ preparedness for the complexity of Brexit negotiations, Mr Varadkar added: “It’s 18 months since the referendum, it’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”
Most commentators believe the only practical solution to the issue of the border is to allow the Six Counties to remain part of the EU Customs Union and Single Market, in line with many other special cases which already exist across Europe. However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which crucially holds the balance of power at Westminster, has rejected this.
Former chancellor and now Conservative “rebel” Ken Clarke said that Britain and the North both remaining in the single market and customs union was vital for peace and stability in Ireland.
“The border problem in Northern Ireland, the supreme importance of keeping the settlement in place, retaining peace in Northern Ireland is probably the single biggest, most important reason why it would be preferable for the United Kingdom as a whole to stay in the single market and the customs union,” he told the BBC.
“If the Brexiteers, these right-wing nationalists, won’t allow us to do that then the best solution after that, I agree with the taoiseach actually, is to have a border down the Irish Sea.”
But there has been outrage from elements in the British hard right over Varadkar’s position
“Ireland’s naive young prime minister should shut his gob on Brexit and grow up,” blazed a headline on the ‘Sun’ publication.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson accused the Irish government of trying to “thwart the referendum result” and “keep the UK chained to the EU”. He said, without irony, that it seemed like the Dublin government were content to involve themselves in the affairs of another state.
Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson said she had presented EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with a copy of the independent legal advice which shows that securing special status for the north within the EU is possible, and told him of his responsibility to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace Agreement.
“I made it clear to him that, despite the rhetoric of from the British government on the Good Friday Agreement, their actions tell a different story, particularly now that they are being propped by the DUP - a party that has never supported the Good Friday Agreement.”
“I also made it clear to him that if sufficient progress is to be made to allow the Brexit negotiations to move on to the next stage then the issues around Ireland, the border and citizens rights must be addressed and the British government must accept the need to protect the Agreement.”