When Irish politicians from both sides of the border met on Aug. 4 to discuss the consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland there were at least some areas of agreement. Both the Republic and the province would, ideally, like to preserve the free movement of people and goods across the border once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. However, as is so often the case, views within the province are divided. While nationalists in Northern Ireland give high priority to the open border with the Republic, unionist politicians want to find a balance between minimizing the disruptions created by Brexit and making sure that Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom.
This was the complicated backdrop to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's first official visit to Northern Ireland. Varadkar, who raised concerns about Brexit creating a new barrier to free trade and commerce between the Republic and the North, set out a range of scenarios for the United Kingdom post-Brexit. These options included an EU-U.K. customs union, a deep free trade agreement with the European Union, rejoining the European Free Trade Association, or a transition period enabling the United Kingdom to remain in the EU single market and customs union while it figures out its future bilateral relationship with the European Union.
For the Republic of Ireland, the main goal of Brexit negotiations is to make sure that its border to Northern Ireland remains open, so that people and goods can continue to move freely. In addition to trade concerns, Dublin is also worried that the reintroduction of a border could threaten the continuity of the Good Friday Agreement, which two decades ago brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of violence.
Free movement of people should not be difficult to preserve, as the Republic and Northern Ireland have an agreement establishing a Common Travel Area. Preserving the free movement of goods, however, will be more difficult. If the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, goods moving between the North and South are likely to be subject to border controls. Even if the United Kingdom signs a free trade agreement with the European Union, there is a chance that some kind of controls will remain in place, as the free trade agreement may not be as comprehensive as Britain's current membership in the single market.
Ideally, the Republic would like Northern Ireland to be granted some kind of special status to keep the border open. But unionist parties in Northern Ireland fear that this could be the precursor to the reunification of the island. Varadkar's visit came just days after the Irish parliament issued a report with a series of recommendations on how Dublin should deal with the Brexit process. The report said Dublin should defend the need to keep an open border with Northern Ireland. It also called for a forum of representatives from North and South to discuss the potential unification of the island. The report was unsurprisingly criticized by unionist parties in the North.
To complicate things further, since the March 2017 elections in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the nationalist Sinn Fein have failed to form a power-sharing government. The central government in London has extended their deadline for some months and may eventually have to exercise direct rule. The disagreements between politicians within the North, and the differences of emphasis between the North and South, give a sense of how challenging Brexit is likely to be for Ireland.