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Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU have begun.

The first phase of negotiations will attempt to find agreement on three main issues, the UK’s financial settlement, citizens’ rights and how the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will operate. The focus of this paper is this latter issue.

The European Union and the United Kingdom agree on the principles of how the border should operate post-Brexit. They both support:

  • The Good Friday Agreement and its commitments, including the right for the people of Northern Ireland to choose to hold Irish or British citizenship or both
  • Preventing a hard border
  • Recognising existing bilateral agreements between the UK and Ireland such as the Common Travel Area.

The European Union wants to ensure that such arrangements are still compatible with EU law, which is why it has suggested “flexible and imaginative solutions will be required.”

Because of the legacy of the Northern Irish Troubles, both the EU and the UK are keen to come to an agreement, and think flexibly and creatively about solutions to the problems created by the UK’s withdrawal. This suggests there is an amount of goodwill on both sides.

However, the Northern Irish border is very complex and probably the most wide-ranging of the three principal areas being discussed in the first round of the Brexit negotiations.

This complexity derives from four main areas:

  • The issues of the border cut across both the exit agreement that is being negotiated and an agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, on which discussions have yet to start;
  • ‘Creative solutions’ to preventing a hard border run up against the established rules and procedures on which the Single Market and Customs Union are built;
  • It is not clear whether, despite the wishes of the British and Irish governments to maintain the Common Travel Area, after the UK’s withdrawal it could continue to function exactly as it does currently; and
  • The problems facing the Northern Irish devolved government add another layer to the complexity. The Executive is currently suspended, the major political parties have significantly differing approaches to Brexit, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party in the Assembly, has signed a confidence and supply deal with the Conservative Party, which gives it an effective veto on UK government policy in this area.

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