Fears are deepening on the Irish border over a hard Brexit, researchers showed. Almost half of residents are against a technological solution to customs checks, according to a study of those living on both sides of the frontier by Queen’s University Belfast academics.
Technology is one of the options under consideration by the British Government as part of EU withdrawal negotiations. The other possibility, a customs partnership, faces strong opposition from Tory Brexiteer MPs.
Report author Dr Katy Hayward said: “The Brexit negotiators’ commitment to avoiding a hard border is not just about minimizing the risk of renewed paramilitary violence.
“The voices heard in this study point to a different aspect of the same concern: the need to protect peace.”
The operation of cross-border institutions was part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which largely ended decades of violence. The extent of the impact of Brexit on the landmark deal is contested.
The Queen’s report concluded:
– An increased level of information appears to have deepened people’s fears about a hard border, with almost six out of 10 respondents saying they believe that is it more likely than they previously thought.
– Half (48%) those living on the border would not countenance a technological solution to avoid a hard border.
– Almost half the Leave voters in the survey sample self-identified as Irish citizens and over a quarter of the Remain voters self-identified as British citizens (including dual citizenship).
The Irish border is one of the most vexed issues facing the negotiators in Brussels. European leaders are due to gather later this month at a European Council summit in the city to discuss progress on post-Brexit trade talks. The British Government hopes to be able to agree an overarching deal which avoids the need for a “backstop” option, which Europe interprets as Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union after Brexit if no other solution can be found.
All sides want a frictionless arrangement on the Irish border which does not inhibit the passage of goods or people and does not mean the construction of checkpoints.
The Queen’s report said: “The report finds that the prospects for the Irish border are inseparable from the peace process.
“Previous experience in the border region means what happens to the border – ie, whether there are checkpoints and controls – is intrinsically connected in most people’s minds with the stability of the peace process.”
Meanwhile, the chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs, Dr Andrew Murrison, said he was disappointed with the lack of detail provided by the Government in response to the committee’s March report on the border.
“The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee wishes the Government well in its work and undertook this inquiry to highlight the key elements that need to be addressed to provide a solution for the border which meets the needs of the citizens, businesses and industries of Northern Ireland.
“We had hoped that the Government would recognize our intent and engage seriously with the issues we highlighted in our report. Instead, we have been provided with little more information than when we published our findings three months ago.”
He said ministers provided the very broadest impression of their intentions when the committee’s recommendations asked for detail. “As a committee we were expecting more at this stage but are left none the wiser on progress made on the border conundrum. We are obliged to press the Government for answers.”
He has written to Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to give her an opportunity to expand.