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Tentative Brexit Deal Keeps Border Porous Between Ireland, Northern Ireland


We've been talking a lot recently about how British Prime Minister Theresa May is fighting for her political life, trying to push a Brexit deal that's deeply unpopular with her own government. But her divorce plan looks different from Ireland, where leaders are breathing a sigh of relief. They hope this plan will avoid creating a trade border dividing Ireland, an EU member, from Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. We're joined now by Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney. He is also Ireland's minister for foreign affairs.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER SIMON COVENEY: Thanks, Rachel, and it's great to be able to speak to a U.S. audience this morning.

MARTIN: Well, on that score, there will be some in our audience who know all the twists and turns of the Brexit debate...


MARTIN: ...But many who don't. So in light of that, can you just explain why it's so important for Ireland to avoid putting up a border with Northern Ireland?

COVENEY: Yeah. No. Absolutely. So you know, for those of your listeners who are familiar with Ireland as an island, it's split into two jurisdictions, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This, of course, has been a source in the past of great tension between Britain and Ireland and, of course, a lot of violence and terrorism, as well. So 20 years ago, there was a really important peace process signed off on, called the Good Friday Agreement, or the Belfast Agreement. And since then, we have had relative peace on the island of Ireland. It's a peace process that has worked. Unionists and nationalists have worked together in a devolved government structure in Northern Ireland.

But one of the big peace dividends has been that physical border infrastructure, which required a lot of security infrastructure between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the past, has been totally removed. And so what we have is an all-island economy now between north and south that functions really well, that focuses on business opportunities, better community relations and has broken down the kind of barriers of the past that have resulted in tension and violence.

MARTIN: And basically, since - just to shortcut this, basically, since Ireland is part of the EU and Northern Ireland is part of the U.K., Brexiteers need to separate the U.K. from the EU. And that would mean some kind of border.

COVENEY: Well, that's what they want to do. So, you know, if you have a different single market on both sides of that border, then you have to have some border checks checking product in terms of where it comes from and, you know, its origins, how it is produced and so on. If you have two customs unions, then you have to have customs checks and potentially customs tariffs. So what we have negotiated with the British government through the EU is a practical set of measures that kind of prevent physical border infrastructure reemerging and the security that would have to go with that, which will cause tension and create a really corrosive environment on the border.

MARTIN: So what is the answer...

COVENEY: And we've got a deal that can do that.

MARTIN: ...If it's not a concrete border? Explain what that means. If it's not going to be a trade border, a physical border, how are you going to regulate it?

COVENEY: Yeah. So essentially, what the EU and the U.K. have agreed is that Northern Ireland would get special treatment, whereby it would be able to trade without any borders into the EU in the future and also trade into the rest of the United Kingdom without any borders either. So it would get that special treatment because it has a special history that needs acknowledgement and protection. And by giving it that special treatment, Northern Ireland effectively would have the best of both worlds from a trading perspective in a way that prevents physical border infrastructure to protect the peace process.

But that is a complex structure that some in London don't like but that the prime minister has committed to and strongly defends, to her credit, because I think she understands the fragility and the exposure and vulnerability on the island of Ireland of an unintended fallout from Brexit that may undermine the peace process, which, of course, we have to protect.

MARTIN: Right. As you know, a lot of people in Northern Ireland are against this plan partly because they're afraid that the consequence will be that they would get separated from the U.K. I mean, do you think this plan is actually going to happen?

COVENEY: Well, let me be very clear. A strong majority of the people in Northern Ireland are in favor of this plan because they understand that it protects Northern Ireland in the context of the peace process and continues to support an all-island economy, which creates the normality that we need...


COVENEY: ...To take the island of Ireland as a whole forward.

MARTIN: Thank you. We'll have to leave it there. Simon Coveney, deputy prime minister of Ireland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.