Gerry Adams, leader of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, told EURACTIV that any customs posts set up at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would mark a return to a hard border 12 years after military checkpoints disappeared between the two countries.
“We were very clear from day one. It was always going to be a hard border, all of this about a soft border is just nonsense,” he said. Adams has for years refused allegations that he was previously a leader of the Irish Republican Army, which has claimed responsibility for numerous violent attacks over the last few decades.
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be in Brussels tomorrow (23 February) to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker amid the country’s aggressive pitch urging Brexit negotiators to maintain an invisible border with no customs controls even after the UK leaves the EU.
Kenny, a member of the centre-right Fine Gael party, will likely not lead Ireland’s Brexit negotiations much longer. He has been embroiled in a police scandal and is expected to resign within the next few months.
Adams said that even if the Irish government sets up less visible customs posts or uses border control technology, “there will still be tariffs” on goods traded between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Sinn Fein has called for the government to demand a special designated status for Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations that would guarantee no border goes up at all.
Adams told EURACTIV that Kenny’s refusal to secure that status for Northern Ireland is “mostly a product of thinking of the island in a Southern context”.
Government officials acknowledge it could be hard to avoid some border controls if the UK also leaves the UK customs union, which Prime Minister Theresa May said last month that she is prepared to do.
Any customs controls might stir tensions between two countries, government sources say. A fragile, 19-year-old peace agreement led to a previously militarised border dissolving in 2005. The border would become the UK’s only land border with the EU after Brexit. Northern Ireland voted with a 56% majority to remain in the EU.
If a visible border goes up for the first time in over a decade, customs posts and other infrastructure could become targets for violent attacks in an area where terrorist bombings took place up until the early 2000s, government sources said. Dissident groups behind the attacks insist that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be united as one country.
The Irish Examiner reported last week that the government is scoping out spots for what would be new customs posts. Enda Kenny said he hopes “there is nobody looking for sites along the border”.
Kenny and other government ministers have repeated the mantra that they are committed to avoiding a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Theresa May has said she doesn’t want to see border controls in Ireland either.
But that could be out of Ireland and the UK’s hands if EU trade rules force the Irish government to accept some kind of controls if the UK leaves the EU customs union.
Ireland is lobbying to stop that. Kenny said last Friday at a Dublin conference on Brexit that the country “faces the most important negotiations in our history as an independent state”.
Government officials say they will push to make any border as invisible as possible if they have to accept controls.
Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan suggested there could be light-touch technology that might satisfy customs requirements.
“We can look at, for example, technological advances, we can look at finding creative solutions that don’t involve physical structures such as border pillars and posts,” Flanagan told reporters last Friday (17 February) in Dublin.
Some officials have already visited “softer” borders between countries in and outside the customs union.
Irish MPs have called the Swedish-Norwegian border, which uses automated technology to read vehicles’ registration details, and the German-Swiss border, possible templates if there have to be any customs checks at all at the Irish border.