Ben Lowry: Northern Ireland is still at risk of a disastrous internal UK border at Irish Sea

Fully backing Dublin against Britain over the Irish border:  EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier,  European Commission President Jean Claude Juncke and German chancellor Angela Merkel
Fully backing Dublin against Britain over the Irish border: EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncke and German chancellor Angela Merkel

The threat of a border in the Irish Sea not only remains, but is rising.

In most pronouncements on Brexit talks now, key EU figures or national leaders — be it the EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, German chancellor Angela Merkel,Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Council Donald Tusk and, most recently, Guy Verhofstadt of the European Parliament — refer to the Irish border.

They are all behind Dublin’s intransigence: a backstop (in the absence of a UK-EU deal) that has the effect of creating a border in the Irish Sea must be part of the withdrawal agreement.

For months I have wondered if I am too pessimistic about this —that the EU is bluffing and knows an internal UK border will be rejected.

London has been emphatic at times against it. Even before the December UK-EU initial deal influential Tory voices from William Hague to Nick Timothy (former advisor to Theresa May) said such an outcome is intolerable to Britain. The pro EU Dominic Grieve agrees.

Then, in December, the UK (feebly) agreed a backstop, which has been interpreted in a maximal fashion by the EU. Theresa May was thwarted in that deal by the DUP and paragraph 50 was inserted ruling out a hard Irish Sea border as well as a hard land one. But the EU is interpreting this as no Irish land checks, so the only way to avoid a sea border is the whole UK stay in the single market and customs union, or as good as, sparking a Brexiteer revolt (as is happening over the complex Chequers plan, which critics say does just that).

Note that the UK plan now seems perhaps worse (in terms of customs) than the so-called Norway model, precisely because London is petrified of the Irish land border.

Something has to give, so the pressure is still at the Irish Sea.

There has been astonishing complacency about this among unionists. Still the matter is little discussed, and when I raise it with unionist politicians or commentators they often assure me that there will be no Irish Sea border due to the DUP coalition. But note how Mrs May finally had to abandon a much larger number of pro Brexit Tory MPs than there are DUP ones.

Some observers however have been raising the alarm: Owen Polley was one of the first on these pages last year, even before the UK’s foolish December pledge.

Richard Bullick, the influential ex advisor to Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, has been tweeting about the alarming notion (possibly implicit in Chequers) that a backstop be agreed on the basis it will never be needed.

If so, why have it?

As Dublin well knows, such a pledge would be (to adapt something David Davis MP said) a Sword of Damocles threatening to fall and sever NI from GB in a decisive way.

If London falls for this, Northern Ireland is doomed.

Many people, some on the pro Union spectrum, think special status (ie Irish Sea border) gives Northern Ireland the best of both worlds.

It would certainly be easier to police than a land border and it would mean we were fully part of EU markets, while still in the UK, so it sounds superficially attractive.

But a key aspect of being part of a nation is that you have unfettered internal trade. At present a shop in Belfast city centre can ship products to storerooms on the outskirts of the city as easily as it can to a site in Exeter, in the same way a shop in Boston centre can ship as easily to its suburbs as it can to California.

Thus ease of checks at ports in Belfast is not the issue — it is the fact of the liability to them.

Not only that, but if the UK and EU diverged further in future, NI would be trapped and voiceless under the EU strategy, making republican arguments for all-island representation in the EU hard to resist and bringing Irish unity closer.

Why has London still not made this an over-riding red line, above the land border? Nigel Dodds got assurance from the PM on the matter this week but the white paper is still ambiguous.

Jacob Rees Mogg needs support for his amendment to rule out an Irish Sea border.

A nation should of course be able to use CCTV at the edge of its jurisdiction but the UK ruled out even that at the land border. A Queen’s University survey found only 20% of nationalists would find CCTV almost impossible to accept, and only 10% support vandalising cameras.

This tiny majority within nationalism is a dissident position and yet the UK has let it dictate its entire Brexit strategy.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry: From teenage England critic to gutted World Cup fan

Ben Lowry: Not enough Twelfth on TV