Editorial: Has Enda reshaped the Brexit border debate?

The border, which never really went away, is definitely back at the centre of Irish politics. Last week we warned of the dangers of assuming an easy read-across from protecting the peace process to avoiding customs controls on an external EU border, especially if the concept was packaged for our European partners as a “demand for special status”. This week we find ourselves wondering if Taoiseach Enda Kenny has subtly but definitively reshaped that debate.

Speaking in Brussels on Thursday at a press conference following a meeting at which EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had been present, the Taoiseach said they had discussed the need to incorporate “the language of the Good Friday Agreement” into the final negotiated outcome between the EU and the UK. He was referring to the provision that the people of Northern Ireland could vote to join the Republic.

“In other words, if at some future time, whenever that might be, if it were to occur, that Northern Ireland would have ease of access to join as a member of the European Union again. We want that language inserted into the negotiated treaty or negotiated outcome whenever that might occur.”

He returned to the point in response to questioning at the press conference. “We don’t want to see the Good Friday Agreement damaged in any way and we know that Europe supports the peace process. We want that to remain in such a position that the language of what is contained in the Good Friday Agreement will also be contained in the negotiated outcome. It provides for that opportunity… in respect of that situation that arose when the Berlin Wall was taken down and East Germany was able to join West Germany in a seamless fashion. That is already inherent in the Good Friday Agreement, therefore in protecting that, we want that language incorporated into the (Brexit) agreement that will eventually emerge.”

The Taoiseach made similar points in the Dáil in September. But now the points have been put to and presumably accepted to Michel Barnier who had already signalled his appreciation of the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement. And now the focus is not on the initial negotiating position, but on the outcome.

The EU will therefore negotiate on the basis that the border may not remain immutable for all time. By successfully specifying the end-line, it seems to us that the Taoiseach has marked out the start-line as well. At any point in the negotiations and in relation to pretty much any border issue, the Irish team can reasonably contend that it should be measured against the already agreed end-line. Anything that gets built up must now incorporate the mechanism of its demolition. Right there, the case has been made – and, it seems, already won – that the EU external border in Ireland should not be the same as other external borders. The precise nature of its difference must now be up for discussion.

There is still no easy read-across, and we still think the term “special status” risks misunderstanding in other European capitals. But Enda Kenny has won the point of special circumstances in respect of the core of the peace process. The next point – that outcomes which lead to a British customs presence on the border will have a definite negative impact on the peace process – can now be taken up