RECENT attempts by the British side to clarify their proposals regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after they leave the European Union have done little to assuage people's fears about what might happen and, if anything, have only added to the haze of confusion about Brexit. Fanciful is probably the best word to describe a lot of what they have in mind, all of which would be subject to agreement with the EU negotiators first.
Some commentators would regard the British government's policy papers on future Customs arrangements and the Irish border as an opening negotiating gambit, but the documents give the impression that it wants its bread buttered on both sides by seeking to leave the EU but still try to keep all of the benefits associated with being a member. This will certainly not be tolerated by the other 27 member-states and Ireland should make this very clear to our neighbours, especially as their latest policy papers â whose contents are either naÃ¯ve or old-fashioned British bulldog brashness â make us a veritable pawn in the negotiations.
These papers came in response to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's straight-talking remarks at the end of last month about the lack of clarity in the British position about cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the possibility that Brexit might lead to the restoration of some form of physical border, which he said âwe don't want.' He threw down the gauntlet to the British government, pointing out that it is they who want to leave the EU and, âif they want to put forward smart solutions, technological solutions for borders of the future and all of that, that's up to them. We're not going to be doing that work for them because we don't think there should be an economic border at all.'
Strong words indeed and among his cheerleaders were Sinn FÃ©in leader Gerry Adams, which made for a new departure in Irish politics, but while some commentators expressed concern about the directness of his approach, his call for clarity on the British side was both necessary and welcome. Arlene Foster and other leading figures in the Democratic Unionist Party, predictably, described his intervention as âunhelpful,' butÂ they surely cannot expect our Taoiseach to stand idly by given the huge implications that Brexit would have for life on this island and for the Good Friday Agreement.
The British Government response last week by way of the publication of papers setting out its negotiating stance on trade and Customs and on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic did little by way of providing clarity and, indeed, it smacked of them making it up as they went along. Fourteen months after Britain voted the leave the EU, we are not much wiser about what they hope to achieve by doing so; all we know is that Ireland is caught in the crossfire and is the country likely to suffer the most, economically, from any fall-out no matter how much it is mitigated.
In contrast to the Taoiseach's forthright remarks a month ago, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was perhaps too charitable in describing the British position papers as âa helpful contribution' and âbringing a degree of much-needed clarity.' Pertinently, he did point out, as regards the border, that the British âseeing technology as the answer misunderstands the problem. We cannot rely on technology alone to solve political questions.'
In the case of the border between Ireland north and south â which will effectively be the land border between the European Union and the United Kingdom â the political issues are quite complex and need to be confronted head-on. The time for beating about the bush is over and the tough talking needs to start; the reality is that Brexit means a border â like it or not.
And, when it comes to the end game in the negotiations, the final decision about how the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will work will be largely influenced by the requirements of the European Union as a whole. It is up to the Irish government to ensure that our interests are properly catered for in whatever agreements are made with Britain so that we won't become the sacrificial lamb once again that the EU made of us at the time of the banking crisis nine years ago.