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Irish politicians claimed on Friday that Britain was on course for a ‘soft’ Brexit, as they welcomed Theresa May’s divorce agreement with the EU as a step towards their key objective of averting a hard border.
The Irish border had become the biggest obstacle in the first phase of Brexit talks, with weeks of escalating tension and a late move on Monday by the Democratic Unionist party of Northern Ireland to block an agreement between Dublin and London.
Ireland had demanded reassurances on how the UK would guarantee no hard border — such as cameras and customs checks — if it left the EU without a deal.
To answer that concern, the final text said that, if no other solution were agreed, Northern Ireland would maintain “full alignment” with the EU single market and customs union rules which support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.
In addition, “no new regulatory barriers” would be erected between Northern Ireland and the UK — raising the possibility that the whole of the UK would remain in line with EU rules.
The deal, although welcomed by all parties, failed to spell out in detail how the border would operate once Britain has left the customs union, without customs posts and without creating divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, said on Friday that Ireland had been given a “politically bulletproof” and “cast iron” commitment that no hard border would be put in place. That aspect of the deal was unchanged from Monday, and the taoiseach played down other changes to the draft text as “stylistic” or questions of language.
Micheál Martin, leader of the opposition Fianna Fáil party, suggested the deal meant “we are edging towards a soft Brexit, something the Brexiteers may not want to hear”. Fintan O’Toole, an Irish commentator, went further, claiming it was “now far more likely that Britain will stay in the customs union and the single market”.
The DUP leader Arlene Foster, meanwhile, made clear her reservations about the agreement. She had blocked an earlier text on Monday, on the basis that it created a risk of greater regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
On Friday, Mrs Foster welcomed the provision that there would be the “same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market”. But she questioned what the commitment to regulatory alignment might mean.
“There is still a major debate within the cabinet, parliament, the Conservative party and other parties about the nature of any regulatory alignment with the EU that may be required post Brexit. We believe that the paper could prejudge the outcome of that debate,” she said.
“However, it was ultimately a matter for the prime minister to decide how she chose to proceed.”
Some of her MPs were more upbeat. Nigel Dodds, the DUP deputy leader, said: “No borders in the Irish Sea. Positive day for the Union.”
The Irish question takes up two pages of the 15-page divorce agreement. The deal embraces provisions set out in the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that allow all Northern Irish-born citizens to take Irish, and therefore EU, citizenship.
The British government has argued that regulatory alignment would mean pursuing the same goals, but in different fashion. Downing Street said the Irish agreement would apply to six areas of north-south co-operation under the Good Friday pact: agriculture, education, environment, health, tourism and transport. That is a narrower remit than the list of 142 areas of co-operation drawn up with the European Commission.
In Dublin’s view the political commitment to avoid border controls is far stronger than previous qualified assurances from London after the Brexit referendum. Britain had offered only vague proposals about how a soft border would operate, arguing that the question could only be settled only in trade talks in phase two of Brexit negotiation.
On Friday, Downing Street maintained that the most likely outcome was a bespoke arrangement, rather than regulatory alignment as laid down in the text. “Our firm belief would be that we will achieve specific solutions on the Irish border,” a spokesman said.