Why Ireland's Border Is Brexit's Intractable Puzzle: QuickTake

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(Bloomberg) -- The boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was long the scene of tense checkpoints and violent protest. Nearly two decades after the end of a conflict that claimed 3,500 lives, the undulating border is once again caught up in a bitter division. Once British and European Union leaders carry out the split -- Brexit -- that British voters ordered up, the border between Ireland’s north and south will be the only land crossing between the two jurisdictions. With both sides facing off over the fine print of their separation, Ireland’s border is proving one of the most vexing issues.

1. Could Brexit mean a return of border checks?

That’s one scenario -- a return of customs controls, along with the delays and costs that would entail. But since cross-border trade is worth more than 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year, there’s a desire to avoid disruptions, especially given concerns that a return to checkpoints and watchtowers could endanger the region’s peace process. Both sides broadly agree that people and goods should move seamlessly back and forth. There’s a discussion about possible technical solutions, such as cameras, drones and a system for pre-clearing goods.

2. Where do negotiations stand?

Up in the air. While a broad agreement on the border was painstakingly reached in December, the issue erupted again after the EU published a draft withdrawal agreement on Feb. 28. That text suggested that Northern Ireland would effectively remain aligned with the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market in the absence of any other agreement. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May rejected that out of hand as interference by the EU in the U.K.’s internal affairs. Still, on March 2 she acknowledged that the U.K. needs to show how it will resolve the border problem and again mentioned technological solutions. If the U.K. and the EU can agree on a joint customs framework for their post-Brexit relationship, that would ease the border issue.

3. Who else is weighing in?

The Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s biggest political party and an essential part of May’s governing majority, is adamant that Northern Ireland will leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of Britain. The party says it won’t accept any deal that separates the territory economically or politically from the rest of the U.K. On the EU side, French farmers have objected to an open Irish border out of concern that cheaper non-EU imports will infiltrate the bloc via the U.K.

4. Why is there a border in the first place?

The island was partitioned in 1921 as part of a peace agreement between the U.K. government and Irish rebels seeking independence. As part of the deal, Northern Ireland, where the population is majority Protestant, remained part of the U.K. with England, Scotland and Wales. The mostly Catholic southern part of the island became the Irish Free State and gained full independence in 1948.

5. What does the border look like today?

Running north-south in some places, east-west in others, it meanders through countryside for some 310 miles (500 kilometers), dividing rivers, fields and even some houses. For now the border is effectively open, meaning people and goods are free to cross back and forth. A change in road signs and accepted currency is pretty much the only indication that a person has moved into a different jurisdiction.

6. What does the fight mean to Ireland?

At the very least, the fight brings back bad memories. The border has been a symbol of British rule almost since it was created, with customs and later military checkpoints positioned at crossings over the course of decades. The Irish Republican Army, which wants a united Ireland, waged a bombing campaign along the border in the 1950s and 1960s. Violence between republican and unionist paramilitary groups claimed about 3,500 lives from the 1970s onward before the arrival of the European single market and a peace accord in the 1990s, when border controls largely melted away.

7. How does the open border work now?

Businesses are now able to work across the entire island. One notable example: Diageo Plc, the maker of Guinness and other beverages, has brewing operations on both sides of the border and sends its trucks across about 18,000 times a year. Ingredients from all over Ireland arrive in Dublin, where the water, barley, hops and yeast are mixed and brewed. The beer is then pumped into tanker trucks and carried 90 miles north to Belfast in Northern Ireland, where it’s bottled and canned before being sent back south for distribution. Similarly, the free movement of horses has helped make Ireland a world leader in the bloodstock industry, which includes racing and breeding, adding about 1 billion euros to the economy. As for humans, an estimated 30,000 people pass through 300 different crossings every day.

8. Could a hard border lead to the return of violence?

Customs and security checks would likely hurt the economy on both sides of the border, and perhaps offer a daily reminder of British rule of Northern Ireland. While the province has been at peace for almost two decades, Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s former deputy leader, who died in March, warned in 2016 that the reintroduction of a border following Brexit could aid those who oppose the region’s peace process. Other politicians argue that peace is now so deeply rooted that it would take more than a few border posts to disrupt the island.

The Reference Shelf

  • Brexit’s threat to the Irish peace process.
  • Bloomberg View’s Therese Raphael explained how Brexit vexes Ireland.
  • What Brexit may mean for the production of Guinness and for horses and racing.
  • A city on the front line worries if Brexit will bring back the violence of the past.
  • Croatia’s border with Bosnia-Herzegovina could be a template for Ireland.
  • A photo of a Swiss border post represents another ideal for Ireland.
  • A report from the German-Irish Chamber of Commerce on Brexit’s impact on Ireland.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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