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Brexit Could Create Hard Border On Island Of Ireland, Threatening Fragile Peace


British Prime Minister Theresa May was back in Brussels today. Once again, she is trying to negotiate a deal that both the EU and the British Parliament will accept. Of all the contentious issues in the debate over Brexit, the most divisive may be a single line. That line is the border dividing the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland.


Brexit threatens to close that open border. It would be an economic hit, and a hard border could also threaten the fragile peace agreement that has kept Northern Ireland stable after decades of violence between Catholics and Protestants. This morning, I sat down with Simon Coveney. He's Ireland's deputy prime minister and foreign minister. And he told me that while the economic damage of a hard border would be real, it is not his top concern.

SIMON COVENEY: Look, there are some things in our view that are more important than trade and - relationships, neighbors being able to live together, respecting each other in peace without fears of the kind of tension of the past which, at times, was very violent. And the absence of physical border infrastructure on our island represents, really, the product of that peace, but also reinforces it every day.

SHAPIRO: If a hard border were to go up between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, what would that mean for your country's economy?

COVENEY: Well, first of all, we're not going to let that happen. You know, we have made it very clear that this border issue goes beyond economic interest. I mean, if Ireland and if Irish leadership was to focus purely on the economics of Brexit, our primary focus would be on the East-West trade between Britain and Ireland. You know, that is a 75-billion euro trade relationship. We have 40,000 Irish companies that trade with Britain virtually every week. It's a hugely valuable and very, very strong relationship. And that is, of course, a big priority for us to protect that trade relationship. But the peace process is a bit different. It's something more fundamental to Irish people and, indeed, to British people living in Northern Ireland. And a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would, in my view, have a very corrosive effect on that normality which has been hard-won.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you about this trip to the United States that you are on right now. It's a brief visit. You're here in Washington. And prominent members of the Trump administration have been very supportive of Brexit, whether that's national security adviser John Bolton or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. What's your message to them on this trip?

COVENEY: Well, I met Secretary Pompeo yesterday. I had a very good meeting with him. But I also met a - you know, other congressman last night - you know, Richie Neal, Pete King. And we're not asking anybody to take sides here - you know, the Irish or EU side or the British side. But we are asking the U.S. to watch closely to ensure that a peace process in Ireland that the U.S. have been hugely supportive of - that that doesn't get undermined.

SHAPIRO: So your message is that this peace is fragile.

COVENEY: This peace is fragile, and that is why we need to be clear and firm, as well as respectful, of the U.K. to make sure that the commitments that the prime minister has made to Ireland - that they're fully followed through on. And I think we've got some very strong statements last night that if the U.K. want a trade deal with the U.S. in the future, which undoubtedly they do, then this border issue and the protection of the peace process will be very much factored into U.S. thinking.

SHAPIRO: In the debate leading up to the Brexit referendum, there was a lot of talk about refugees and immigrants. There was a lot of talk about regulations from Brussels.


SHAPIRO: How much attention do you think was paid to your country - to the Republic of Ireland?

COVENEY: Virtually none. Don't forget that there's a strong majority of people in Northern Ireland who voted to stay in the EU. They didn't support Brexit at all, which is now, of course, why it's so ironic that Northern Ireland and the border between North and South has become this pivotal issue. But look, that's where we are.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

COVENEY: Ireland doesn't want to be in this place. Brexit is not an Irish policy. We think it's a mistaken policy, but we have to accept that it's happening.

SHAPIRO: So just for a moment, to take a step back and set aside the policy debates and the speculation about the future, what is it like to be at the center of this international tug of war where another country's decision has such a tremendous impact...


SHAPIRO: ...On your people and your country?

COVENEY: Well, as I say, this is not the place we want to be. You know, the relationship between Ireland and Britain is a very close one. In some ways, I'm a product of the Anglo-Irish relationship myself in terms of my own family story. I've been to university in England. I've worked in Scotland, but I'm a very proud Irishman. So we don't want this tension in terms of politics and policy between Ireland and the U.K. We certainly don't want unnecessary tension undermining political relationships in Northern Ireland that are already fragile. My job and the job of the British government is to work together to try to create reassurance in Northern Ireland that actually Brexit can happen, but we can protect a peace process; Brexit can happen, but we can protect the status quo on the island of Ireland.

SHAPIRO: Simon Coveney, deputy prime minister and also foreign minister for the Republic of Ireland. Thank you for coming into the studio today.

COVENEY: Thank you. Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.