Government: There will be no equipment, ever, at Irish border

The government has declined to state plainly that it reserves the right to put checkpoints on the border in the event of renewed violence, when asked about the issue by the News Letter.

Saturday, 28th July 2018, 2:01 pm
Updated Saturday, 28th July 2018, 3:34 pm
Newly installed Exiting the European Union Secretary (Brexit) Dominic Raab and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley. Mr Raab's department told the News Letter: The PM has made clear there can never be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, including any infrastructure or related checks and controls." Photo: PA Wire

The question had been put directly to the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), which has been handling the Brexit negotiations.

In response to the News Letter’s enquiry DExEU said Prime Minister Theresa May (right) has already pledged there will “never be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, including any infrastructure or related checks and controls”.

This comes against a backdrop of firm and repeated assurances from the government that there will be no infrastructure at all at the border.

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Its past declarations even ruled out installing equipment for scanning number plates of vehicles as they drive along a road.

DExEU was also asked if its commitments to date mean any existing infrastructure at the border must be dismantled, but a spokeswoman said “there isn’t any infrastructure currently on the border”.

North Antrim MLA Jim Allister, Brexiteer and TUV leader, accused the government of being “equivocal” on the issue of its right to secure the border, and said the whole issue is a symptom of its “idiotic” handling of the negotiations.

Back on December 8, in a key document called the ‘joint report’ setting out its stance on the Brexit negotiations, the government pledged “the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”.

This echoed similar statements the Prime Minister had already made – for example, in her Florence Speech last September she had said “we will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border”.

And it has been reiterated many times since, including in May when Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley was quoted by Reuters as saying: “We are committed to no new physical infrastructure at the border, no new checks or controls... We have said there will no ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras, no new cameras.”

This week, DExEU was asked questions by the News Letter about existing infrastructure, some the technicalities of how the border talks will now proceed, and the following query: “Does the UK reserve the right to institute infrastructure at the border, be it checkpoints, watchtowers or anything else, for security reasons” (as opposed to trade-related ones).

It responded: “The PM has made clear there can never be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, including any infrastructure or related checks and controls.

“The proposals set out in the White Paper for the UK’s future relationship with the EU [on July 12] will ensure that a backstop solution would not need to be brought into effect.

“But the UK is committed to including legally operative text for a backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement that delivers on all the commitments made in the Joint Report.”

The ‘backstop’ it refers to is supposed to be a temporary set of rules which will kick in for dealing with the Irish border if no firm and final agreement is reached with the EU by the time Brexit takes effect.

It has yet to be finalised.

But the UK has said it will, if used, keep the UK in “full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” – and simultaneously there will be “no new regulatory barriers” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Jim Allister said a pledge to not have any infrastructure must not find its way into a final treaty.

“The government put the cart before the horse and made foolish, foolish undertakings they’d have no infrastructure on the border, no knowing what trade deal they’d have or anything else,” he said.

And when it comes to the right to secure the border, he said the government “have a solemn obligation to defend its territory against terrorism if that was re-ignited”.

“And for the government to be equivocal about that is serving no purpose other than encouraging anyone who might be minded to think they can get away with terrorism. I think they’re being equivocal in not answering a straightforward question.”

However, unionist peer Reg Empey said: “DExEU is probably not going to say anything else to you. Clearly, subsequently if a security situation arose then obviously the rule book changes, I’m pretty sure.

“But I wouldn’t be reading too much into that [DExEU statement] because I think they’re afraid of starting a whole hue and cry [about] ‘oh there’s going to be infrastructure’.”