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A Look At How British Prime Minister Boris Johnson May Handle The Irish Border


Negotiations over Brexit could be further complicated by the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. One of the biggest sticking points is how to handle the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As part of the European Union, this border has been effectively erased. If Brexit actually happens, the border will likely come back.

Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, negotiated this agreement with European leaders for a so-called backstop that would've avoided a physical border with checkpoints between the two jurisdictions. But the idea never got parliamentary approval, and Boris Johnson now has other plans.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: No country that values its independence, and indeed, its self-respect, could agree to a treaty which signed away our economic independence and self-government as this backstop does.

MARTIN: So how's that sitting with Ireland's leaders?

Joining us now is Daniel Mulhall. He's the Irish ambassador to the U.S. Thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL MULHALL: Good morning to you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you to do a bit of work for us. When we consider this border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, there are so many political, security, diplomatic sensitivities. Can you attempt to explain to an American audience why this is so complicated?

MULHALL: Well, at the moment, the border between the two parts of Ireland is like the border between New York and New Jersey. It's a seamless border. People move back and forth. Goods and services move back and forth because we're both members of the European Union.

When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, it means that Northern Ireland will also leave, and therefore, if they were to leave the customs union and the single market, Northern Ireland would be in a different regulatory and customs environment for the rest - from the rest of Ireland. And that would create problems for the flow of goods across that border because Ireland would be a member of the single market, and Northern Ireland would not be.

So we're not talking here about the movement of people. Nobody has any difficulty about that. There is total free movement of people between Britain and Ireland, and that will continue...

MARTIN: It's the trade.

MULHALL: ...Come what may. It's all about customs. It's all about what happens in - on an island where you have two different customs and regulatory jurisdictions. How is that managed? And the way to manage it, as far as we are concerned, is to have the closest possible agreement between the U.K. and the European Union, which will allow for the free flow of trade. And that's the outcome we hope for.

But if that doesn't happen, we need an insurance policy that, come what may, there will be no border on the island of Ireland. And that's what's - what is contained in the withdrawal agreement, which is currently a matter of contention in Britain between different groups who take different views. And the fact is that it hasn't been possible to get it through Parliament so far. And now we have a new British prime minister, and we must wait and see what happens when the new prime minister engages with the European Union.

MARTIN: What is your suspicion about how Boris Johnson is going to approach this problem?

MULHALL: Well, that's a matter, really, for Prime Minister Johnson, whom I know from our time together in Brussels in the early 1990s. I wish him well. In fact, everyone in Ireland wishes him well.

We want to see a successful Britain. We want to see Britain leave the European Union in an orderly fashion so that it minimizes the economic damage to Britain, to the European Union and to Ireland - and particularly that avoids any damage to our peace process on the island of Ireland because the border in Ireland, of course, is not just an economic border; it's also a border which is surrounded by political sensitivities. And that's why it's politically so important for the peace process that we avoid disrupting that process by harming that border in any way.

And everyone has the same view, by the way - the U.K., Ireland and the European Union. Nobody wants to see a hard border on the island of Ireland. The problem is, how do you make that happen in a situation where Britain leaves the customs union and leaves the single market? That's the puzzle that Prime Minister Johnson and the European Commission leaders have to resolve.

I'm hopeful that they will find a solution. But it's really a matter for the U.K. and for the new British prime minister to determine how he wants to proceed.

MARTIN: Daniel Mulhall, Ireland's ambassador to the United States. Thank you for your time.

MULHALL: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.