There has been an intriguing development in the Brexit negotiations and the Irish border.
The EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who has hitherto been inflexible on the so-called ‘backstop’ to prevent a hard land border, suddenly sounded more conciliatory on Thursday.
He said: “What the EU has proposed is that Northern Ireland remains in a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU. We are ready to improve the text of our proposal with the UK.”
This relates to one of the biggest obstacles in the entire Brexit talks, our border with the south.
In December, Theresa May foolishly got into a commitment on avoiding a hard border that has caused problems ever since, and might yet derail Brexit or lead to a sudden border in the Irish Sea in a chaotic late bid to avoid ‘no deal’.
The original backstop, that was about to be agreed in December before the DUP intervened, was that Northern Ireland would align with EU customs and regulations in the absence of an EU-UK agreement that resolved the matter.
This would have meant a border and checks in the Irish Sea.
The revised backstop, after the DUP complained, read: “In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain 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.”
This meant alignment would be UK-wide, which would be hard to sell in England if it came to pass.
There was also a clause inserted prohibiting an Irish Sea border.
Unionists can take comfort from the fact that London has become increasingly emphatic on preventing such an internal border, most recently in comments to this newspaper by Philip Hammond, the chancellor, ruling it out entirely (see link below).
The problem though is that the UK has over-committed on the matter of avoiding actual infrastructure at the land border.
No unionist who is sensitive to the resentments within nationalism around the border, and the psychological importance within that community of an invisible border, would want checkpoints.
It would be very bad for community relations and very bad, perhaps fatal, for the future of the Union.
And even aside from such sensitivities, as my article last week on the convenience of Dublin airport helped illustrate, most of us would dread the hassle of a hard border (see link below).
But one thing that Britain should obviously retain is the right to use cameras up to and at the border.
We are in an age of ever improving technology in which smaller and smaller cameras can achieve near miracles, as we know from our mobile phones, let alone the sort of equipment governments can buy.
Cameras will not solve the border but they will help with a possible overall solution, and nationalist opposition to them is small.
In May, Karen Bradley told MPs: “We have said there will be no ANPR [automatic number plate recognition] cameras, no new cameras, we have been clear that there will be no new physical infrastructure.”
Sinn Fein is fearful about any retreat on the backstop to prevent a hard land border. But I am concerned from the other direction: that Mr Barnier’s new tone might lead to a compromise in which Britain moves a bit further towards the EU demands in legal text (check on Youtube Jacob Rees Mogg MP grilling the senior EU politician Guy Verhofstadt on the border to see some of the inconsistencies on Europe insisting Britain commit to no checks that it will not make itself).
My fear is that the UK could get into far-reaching commitments on land infrastructure that undermine NI’s place in the Union.
It is still more than possible that Brexit will succeed and that multiple EU problems will deepen in the coming decades and that the UK will then want to diverge even further from the EU, but that we in NI will be bound by legal commitments, flowing from the backstop.
In that case, once again, as so often happens in Northern Ireland, unionist complacency will lose out to an Irish nationalism that knew when to kick up an almighty fuss.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor