There are, even among informed observers, two quite different assessments as to what is happening politically with the Irish border.
One school of thought is that the UK is going to agree to a situation such as Northern Ireland staying in the customs union and single market, so that there is a border in the Irish Sea rather than a land one.
This analysis assumes that the DUP influence in propping up Theresa May’s government will only go so far in preventing such an outcome and will lose out to the greater economic imperative to reach a UK-EU deal.
The other school of thought is that Dublin’s determination to achieve the above outcome has so far failed and will continue to fail, because London would never agree it and because the EU has already retreated from insisting that regulatory convergence between NI and Ireland be enshrined in law.
Yesterday, on her visit to Northern Ireland, the News Letter pressed the prime minister on that question (see her answer in full below).
Theresa May reiterated her opposition to a border in the Irish Sea and made clear, as she has done before, that the Province must retain full access to the internal UK market.
Her comments are welcome and important, but they are still not the end of the matter.
London in December committed to the fact that there will be no ‘hard border’ at the land crossing, and that this meant no checking and no infrastructure whatsoever.
This pledge is at the heart of the current uncertainty. Almost no-one can see how these two pledges, to avoid any noticeable border on land and any Irish Sea border at all, are compatible.
The ball is now in the EU’s court. If it continues in the coming months to tie the matter down legally in the way that it has made clear it wants to see, then one of two things will happen: Mrs May will stick by her pledge on NI’s unfettered access to the internal UK market, and the EU talks will stall, or she will retreat from that pledge, in which case there will be a justified political crisis here.