The question of what kind of border after Brexit will exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic will, I predict, become a very thorny one indeed as negotiations crawl into the autumn. Talk of ‘putting the border in the Irish Sea’ — somehow leaving the north inside the EU for customs and immigration purposes, but cut off from European funding — was a red herring that provoked DUP tantrums, but more significant was the weekend outburst from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. As far as his government is concerned ‘there shouldn’t be an economic border… and we’re not going to help [the British] design some sort of border that we don’t believe should exist in the first place.’
Behind this is Irish irritation at glib remarks about the border by British ministers — so far entirely failing to address the problem that two countries not in a customs union must obviously have a customs boundary between them. Vague talk of number plate recognition, surveillance cameras and digital tracking at an open crossing is regarded not only as highly unlikely to prove effective but as a positive encouragement to renewed IRA mischief.
Secondly, Ireland stands to lose by far the most of any EU country from Brexit, since the UK buys 50 per cent of all Irish exports, and its political class feels justified in fighting accordingly — especially at a time when the Irish economy is otherwise motoring along nicely. It was even more enraged by Theresa May’s kowtowing to the DUP to keep herself in power. All this leads to the most significant aspect of the border issue, which is that it threatens to fuel a revival of Irish nationalism. As the Troubles in the north fade into memory, a self-confident younger generation, including the likes of Varadkar and his foreign affairs and trade minister Simon Coveney, no longer feel the reticence of their predecessors about expressing the aspiration of a united Ireland.