Questions over the Irish border and its implications for trade and the peace process are some of the most significant facing Brexit negotiators. Abi Kay reports.
Ireland’s politically difficult and at times violent history has made the issue of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland one of the most vexed questions of the Brexit debate.
If a hard border were to be re-introduced, farmers would be among the worst affected because of the deeply interconnected food supply chains which reach across the island.
But despite these difficult challenges, it is clear there is strong political will on all sides to deal with the Irish issue and there appears to be a quiet optimism about the chances of negotiating a settlement.
Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president Barclay Bell said: “There are very strong linkages in the whole processing sector.
“Upwards of 30 per cent of Northern Irish milk is processed in southern Ireland and upwards of 40 per cent of our lambs head south to be slaughtered and processed.”
Rowena Dwyer, chief economist at the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), said the Irish supply chain was ‘unbelievably integrated’, with animal products and fresh milk crossing the border on a daily basis for processing and finishing.
“At the moment all of the products are produced under uniform conditions which apply to producers across the EU”, she added.
The concern is if a hard border is re-introduced, farmers would face additional costs and paperwork because of new customs checks, animal health requirements and food safety rules.
Alan Matthews, Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin, said a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU would not necessarily solve the problem.
“If you have imports coming into the EU into Ireland from a non-EU country, there is all the associated paperwork – all of your veterinary certificates, all of your health certificates.
“With a free trade agreement you would still need rules of origin certificates, but you would also need to come through a border inspection post where the food safety inspectorate has the right to take samples.”
These kind of checks threaten to grind trade to a halt, but both the UK Prime Minister and the European Council President Donald Tusk have paid extraordinary attention to the Irish border.
Mr Bell said the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had a special understanding of the Irish situation because he delivered peace money into Ireland.
The IFA also acknowledged the ‘positive communications’ on both sides and paid tribute to the work done by the Irish Government to push the issue up the agenda.
“I think there will be a lot of support for resolving the issue”, Ms Dwyer added.
“We have said when there are discussions about trying to ensure there is not a hard border, they cannot just be restricted to freedom of movement, they have to relate to issues on trade.”
The IFA has another reason to want a good trade deal with the UK, as 70 per cent of British beef imports come from Ireland.
For this reason, the group is pushing for the UK ‘not to have carte blanche in pursuing other trade deals’.
Ms Dwyer said she would like to see a Brexit deal that prevented the UK from importing cheap food as this would displace Irish beef onto the EU market.
Though there are not yet any definitive answers to the border question, it seems everyone is on the hunt for ‘flexible and imaginative’ solutions.
Professor Matthews told Farmers Guardian his preference would be for the EU and UK to mutually recognise each other’s standards as part of a free trade agreement.
This would mean facilities would occasionally have to be inspected by both authorities, but it would remove the need for a physical check of any products crossing either border.
It would also allow some flexibility for separate export supply chains which meet different standards to be set up for other markets.
Another option mooted by Professor Matthews was a ‘decentralised’ system in which paperwork usually checked at the border would be handled by the big importers in either jurisdiction.
In this scenario, products crossing the border would be considered ‘in bond’ until they reached their destination, where qualified inspectors would be ready to carry out checks they would normally complete at the border. The products could then be distributed further for processing or finishing.
Other possible mechanisms being considered are the arrangement between North and South Cyprus.
Mr Bell said he remembered the difficulty the army had in trying to police a hard border during The Troubles and claimed it would be impossible for the police to do the same now.
“I do believe we will get some sort of a sensible arrangement and we will not return to a hard border”, he added.
“We still have to look at some of these working examples but I think it is unlikely.”
Gordon Crockett, 22, crosses the border up to 8 times a day as his farm on the outskirts of Londonderry straddles Northern Ireland and the Republic.
He said if a hard border were to be re-introduced it would make farming difficult as he could not even cross it with his tractor.
“If machinery comes in from outside the EU it has to be inspected and cleaned because of the chance of any diseases coming in”, he added.
“If we had a real hard border, it would make more sense to have two separate operations. We would need to build a new house, new sheds and get new machinery. It is not something which would happen overnight, it would have to be done over a few years.”