Hard-hitting investigations. As the Brexit negotiations begin and the border tops the agenda, Jim Fitzpatrick travels to Brussels in search of answers.
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There's nothing particularly remarkable about this strip
of road where Northern Ireland ends and the Republic begins.
But this stretch of unremarkable land and hundreds of miles
like it is about to become the most significant line on a map in Europe.
I'm at the border and I'm waiting.
I'm waiting for someone to turn up who holds the future of this
border, and indeed perhaps, this whole island, in his hands.
Michel Barnier is the EU's Chief Negotiator,
the man leading the Brexit talks for Europe.
He must try and settle the divorce terms with the UK on behalf
of Ireland and the other 26 remaining members.
I'm very happy and honoured to address both houses and to
greet you, the representatives of the people of Ireland,
in all your political diversity.
That's why the Irish politicians want him to see with his own eyes
what's on the line.
Some might be concerned about the exports to the UK or by the
return of custom checks at the border.
Others might fear a return to the instability of the past.
So, this is our VIP arrival.
I already said many times,
nothing in this negotiation should put peace at risk, that the
Good Friday Agreement must be respected in all its dimensions.
The point about bringing Michel Barnier here,
and I understand he's been brought up by the
Irish Foreign Minister, is to physically take him to the border,
show him what it's like, so he can get a real impression
of the Irish border.
There's a lot at stake here for our people.
As a lawyer who in a former life practised in many divorce cases,
I can say from my experience, using that analogy,
there's no such thing as an easy divorce.
There's no such thing as a quickie divorce without consequences.
And this border is where the consequences will be felt.
There's nothing to see here and little to enjoy
unless you're fond of diesel fumes.
This dusty pit stop isn't on the tourist trail.
That's what the politicians want to demonstrate.
There's no border to see and that's the way they like it.
I wanted to know if Mr Barnier had got their point.
Mr Barnier, can you see the border? Can you see it?
-So, it's invisible?
Will it remain like that?
He think so but he doesn't know.
The man on his right,
former Assistant Chief Constable in Northern Ireland, Peter Sheridan,
knows what it was like before and can speak with some authority.
He's pointing out some very real dangers, start with customs
and you can quickly end up with army patrols and lookout towers.
I catch up with Peter Sheridan later at a different border crossing.
You are taking Mr Barnier around the border there in South Armagh,
what were you telling him?
Well, I suppose I was trying to make the point to him that we
need to think beyond just customs,
that the point for us here is that this border
has been invisible for the last 20 years and if you make it
visible again, does that become point of conflict again?
How would it become a point of conflict?
If you're only sticking up a couple of cameras,
that's hardly high security.
Well, that's true, but the history of this place is that...
There's a perception that the conflict was about Catholic-Protestant.
It wasn't, it was about identity.
Some people saw their allegiance to the Republic of Ireland,
some people saw their allegiance to Westminster.
So the border became the point of conflict.
When customs posts were here originally,
the first shots were fired at customs officers.
Then the police end up having to protect the customs officers.
Then when they're attacked, soldiers ended up having to protect police
officers and then we ended up having to build structures on the border.
Nobody set out with that intention of a hard border in that regard,
but that's the way it played out.
One idea put forward by officials is to carry out checks away from
Dan Hannan, a Conservative MEP,
played a leading role for Leave in the Brexit campaign.
He thinks the checks could move to ports and airports.
Remember, this is not the 19th century when we have
uniformed customs offices with moustaches and epaulettes and so on,
almost all of this is done in advance online.
So what we mean when we talk about customs checks is
a final verification that the paperwork is accurate.
I think that can be much more accurately and easily carried
out at the major freight terminals and ports where all the
infrastructure is in place.
This would effectively move the border from the land in
Ireland to the sea between Ireland and Britain.
It poses big problems for Unionists,
for the UK to treat Ireland as one,
yet the minister for Brexit wouldn't rule it out when challenged.
You mentioned that you wanted to see no hard border between
Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic,
that's something which we share.
But can you rule out that that will not be delivered by having
the border controls between the island of Ireland and Great Britain?
I don't know, Mr Wilson, at the moment. Let me...
My view here is...
I don't see that that will be the solution, to be honest.
But what I don't want to do... The primary concern for me...
The reason I'm hesitating is the primary concern for me
is to make sure that we don't have that hard border, all right?
And there are various technical ways of resolving that,
we haven't finished that process.
I can see the issue, absolutely see the issue,
and I can see why that's a very second-best solution.
I think we can find a better one but I won't make a promise today.
I will make a point of writing to you when we've got further down
-the road of the solution.
Brexit has put the border and Northern Ireland at the top
of Europe's agenda.
Some of the EU's most influential politicians,
including the Brexit chief himself,
gathered in Wicklow earlier this month.
The star attraction of their conference was former
Prime Minister Tony Blair.
As one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, I'm extremely
anxious to make sure that Brexit does not impair that agreement.
The agreement was born in the context of EU membership for
both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
We've never had a situation before where the Republic of Ireland
and the UK have been in a different status from each
other in respect of Europe.
We've either both been out or both been in.
Brexit has shifted the delicate balance of relationships.
Europe always backed the UK and Ireland equally on Northern Ireland.
But now, Europe's politicians are solely behind
remaining member Ireland.
For Tony Blair,
that's an uncomfortable position for Unionists.
Has Brexit changed the dynamic in relation to a united Ireland?
Look, a Northern Ireland politician could answer that better in a way.
Look, I'll be frank with you, it did surprise me
that there were elements of Unionism that would support Brexit.
Were they shooting themselves in the foot?
Well, I think if you analyse it,
the benefit of the Good Friday Agreement
and Britain being in Europe is that,
as I say, it's not an issue because the
Republic and the UK have the same status in respect of Europe. So...
I find it surprising.
I hope the UK is maintained, of course I do, but, you know,
this is a debate that in the end will be settled in Northern Ireland.
On the day she triggered the Brexit negotiations,
the Prime Minister stressed the Union was safe.
We have a preference that Northern Ireland should remain part
of the United Kingdom and we will never be neutral in expressing our
support for that.
And that's because I believe fundamentally in the strength
of our Union.
But the debate has begun in earnest.
Last month Europe put a united Ireland into the headlines by
signalling automatic EU membership for Northern Ireland in the
event of Irish unity.
It was nicknamed the Kenny Clause after the Taoiseach
who pushed for it.
I think that's a significant legal statement from the European Council.
Brexit has helped build a new bond between Ireland and Europe.
We want to find a solution without rebuilding any kind of hard border.
I want to protect and preserve the Good Friday process and agreement.
But we have to find a solution that is also compatible
with the single market.
Solutions which might be different in Northern Ireland from the
rest of the UK.
It's the Good Friday Agreement which has made the difference.
Northern Ireland is different because people here have an
automatic right to Irish, that is European, citizenship.
And this is the only part of the UK which can rejoin the EU without
an application process if people here vote for a united Ireland.
It's not just Europe that says this but the UK Government too.
Brexit Minister David Davis confirmed this in a letter
to Mark Durkan.
-It's because of the Good Friday Agreement.
Of course, absolutely right.
In some respects the British government did accept some of
the premises on which Europe are now negotiating, because after all,
David Davis wrote to me to accept certain things about the
Good Friday Agreement that meant that Northern Ireland would be the
only place in the UK that could actually rejoin the EU
without needing a negotiation, unlike the UK as a whole,
unlike any independent Scotland,
he also accepted that we're different because of citizenship.
This change means a vote for a united Ireland is also a vote
to rejoin the EU and this appears to have reawakened Irish Nationalism.
The day after the UK voted to leave the EU, Sinn Fein called for
a vote to leave the UK.
We're calling for a border poll, of course,
because we're united-Irelanders.
But we're also calling for a border poll because we want to
continue with the improvements that have been made on the life of
the people of this island.
Fresh from its best Assembly election result, the party
is now calling for that border poll to be held within five years.
Sinn Fein says it hates Brexit,
but it seems to love the consequences.
Obviously, as Irish Republicans,
we want to get to the stage where we achieve a united Ireland,
but we want to design that new
future and that new Ireland
with all the people in this island, orange and green,
so it has opened up a new political debate.
We are in a new political era and that can only be a good thing.
Unlike Sinn Fein, the Irish Government is dead against
a border poll.
It wants to take credit for a big shift on the Irish unity issue,
but it certainly doesn't want it to happen now.
Has Brexit changed the dynamic towards a united Ireland?
I believe it has.
But it's important that the letter and spirit of the
Good Friday Agreement be fully subscribed to.
Of course, the issue of a united Ireland and
a border poll is fully covered within the Good Friday Agreement.
I don't believe now is the time for a border poll, in fact,
I think moves towards a border poll at this stage will give rise
to serious dangers.
Amidst growing talk of a united Ireland and border polls,
the Prime Minister Theresa May paid a recent visit
to the Balmoral Show,
where the only local politician she met was the DUP leader.
This is my son Ben who wanted to meet the Prime Minister very much.
Very good to meet you, Ben.
But I said we mightn't get a chance to do that. Everything going well?
-Yes, thank you. Yes.
Theresa May says Brexit presents opportunities,
though in Northern Ireland it was more the challenges of the
border and trade that came to mind.
I'm very clear that we want to see
no return to the borders of the past, no hard border, and I'm clear
that we need to see as seamless and frictionless a border as possible.
But even an invisible border can have hard consequences if it
causes problems for trade.
This is us in the butchery department,
generally our primal meat joints arrive in here.
This agri-food boss, like Theresa May, didn't support Brexit,
but now wants to make a success of it.
But he says he urgently needs more detail from government at
a local and national level.
We're not quite sure whether the UK government has a plan and
they're not telling us or whether they don't have a plan at all.
My fear is that the plan doesn't exist.
Are jobs at risk if we don't get this right?
From Northern Ireland perspective, across many industries, but
particularly the agri-food industry, jobs are potentially at stake.
Like many agri-food businesses, Trevor Lockhart's an all-Ireland
enterprise and he would like trade to continue unhindered after Brexit.
Sinn Fein is pushing for what it calls designated special
status for Northern Ireland.
It would mean continued EU membership in all but name.
Well, we do not want tea and sympathy,
and the hundreds of MEPs that I have spoken to across Parliament have
all got the case that we are making for designated special status.
The DUP is strongly opposed to designated special status,
but language is important, the party is still keen for
a special deal that protects jobs and livelihoods.
Well, I don't hear anywhere in Europe that there is such
a thing as special status being considered, but there is
mention of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.
I hope that we can work together to actually agree something that
is mutually beneficial.
Despite the rhetoric, the parties may not be miles apart on Brexit,
but with no Executive at Stormont, there is no agreed position.
What's your top priority at the moment? Is Brexit number one?
Absolutely. I am... It's all-consuming. Everything that I do.
Well, if Brexit is so all-consuming and so important,
then why not get back together in government at Stormont
so you can put a unified case to Europe?
We'd go back to Stormont in a heartbeat,
but we're not going back to the status quo.
So with Stormont currently out of business and unable to speak
for Northern Ireland in Europe, business has taken the initiative.
Trevor Lockhart and a number of colleagues are taking their
concerns directly to Brussels where the decisions will be made.
Gordon Best represents the construction sector,
Conor Patterson from Newry speaks for border businesses.
Well, you've got Gordon and Conor here, yourself,
how many more are we meeting in Brussels?
There should be, I think there's another three or four.
They're joined in Brussels by Stephen Kelly who represents
manufacturing in Northern Ireland,
Allie Renison from the Institute of Directors
and Jennifer McKeever
and George Fleming from the Londonderry Chamber.
They want solutions for the border problem, keenly felt in areas
like the northwest.
The thing about customs is that customs is about control and
that means security and that means some way of policing
and security measures and whether we're talking about trade or people
crossing the borders,
they do every day to go to work and to live their lives in the
northwest, that's unimaginable, it would destroy our city.
The delegation heads for a meeting with DUP MEP Diane Dodds to
see if the local politicians are any closer to a deal.
Many of you have mentioned Brexit, we need a plan, we need so on...
I have been involved in the talks process.
It was one of those areas where I think we were inching towards
really good progress.
..the same timeframe...
They want an agreement that keeps Northern Ireland in the
European Single Market with no border,
but their host emphasises the importance of the UK market.
It is important,
access to the Single European Market is hugely important, but actually
access to the UK single market is the thing that is absolutely vital.
Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson offers the group a welcome lunch,
but with Brexit on the menu, there's a lot to digest.
You're all very welcome.
It's great to welcome you to the parliament and I hope you
find it useful.
But it's a very... I would...
Well, it's interesting times but it's a very serious time as well.
The group gets down to business.
We're worried, we're concerned and we want to make sure we've a bit
of skin in the game so we can help influence what the future looks out.
Well, can I just say you're right to be worried?
You're right to be concerned. What the outcome is, nobody knows.
What the group wants are details of a border deal.
All sides, the EU, the UK, the Irish Government,
have said they want no hard border.
Have you seen the blueprint?
Oh, certainly not and I don't think it even exists yet because...
..that is what will be decided, I think, almost at the very last
in all the negotiations that are going to take place because that is
the most difficult of the many difficult areas that have got
to be dealt with in these Brexit negotiations, that will be,
I believe, the most difficult of all.
This is the centre of attraction for many visitors to Brussels,
a key seat of power.
Northern Ireland's three MEPs have been vocal on Brexit in Europe.
Sinn Fein doesn't sit at Westminster,
but its Northern Ireland MEP addressed the Prime Minister
in colourful terms in the European Parliament.
Let me put the record straight to everybody that's here,
no border, hard or soft, will be accepted by the people of Ireland.
What British armoured cars and tanks and guns couldn't
do in Ireland, 27 member states will not be able to do.
So, Theresa, your notion of a border, hard or soft, stick it
where the sun doesn't shine, because you're not putting it in Ireland.
Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson warns Europe's Brexit negotiator
not to get too close to Dublin.
I hope you're listening, Mr Barnier...
I hope you're listening, Mr Barnier.
I want to make it very clear to you, not twiddling with your telephone
as you seem to be doing.
Dublin does not speak for Belfast.
And the DUP's Diane Dodds was mocked for supporting Brexit but
wanting a unique deal for Northern Ireland.
The European Union has an extremely important trading relationship
with the United Kingdom.
And agriculture is at the heart of this.
And just to say to Madam Dodds, well, my goodness,
you're lamenting the problem which is now arisen, yet you and
your political party advocated we leave the European Union.
Oh, dear, oh, dear, the sound of pennies beginning to drop.
There are two parts to any Brexit deal,
the first is the withdrawal agreement and that will take
two years. The second is future relationships and trade and
that could take up to ten.
The UK believes trade can also be sorted within the two-year process,
but Europe disagrees and has prioritised three things,
the divorce bill, the rights of citizens, and the Irish border.
The visitors from Northern Ireland want to know if that means
they'll see the shape of a deal any time soon.
Brian Hayes of the Irish Government party Fine Gael,
offers them an insider's briefing.
It's unlikely that you're going to get early agreement,
it's the nature of politics.
Nothing is agreed till everything is agreed.
What you'd said earlier there is that this border thing may be one
of the last things actually resolved.
And what we could potentially be facing right now is actually
being lost in very clear sight, so we're being placed up and we're
being one of the top three things that need to be resolved,
however, it may be one of the last things that's actually resolved.
The visitors leave Brussels pleased that Northern Ireland is one
of Europe's three priorities but concerned
details of a deal will have to wait.
Meanwhile, back home, the Brexit Minister challenges Europe's agenda
and disputes the plan to settle the border ahead of other issues.
And Northern Ireland, by the way,
how on earth do you resolve the border, the issue of the border
with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless
you know what our general borders policy is,
what the customs agreement is, what the free trade agreement is,
whether you need to charge tariffs at the border or not?
You can't decide one without the other. It's wholly illogical,
and we happen to think, the wrong interpretation of the treaty.
So, that will be the row of the summer.
So, it's only the change in tarmac which tells you where the border is.
Perhaps the Brexit Minister is right. After all, how do you sort
this border problem without looking at all other external border issues?
But as everyone acknowledges,
this border has its own particular explosive history, and by
questioning any early deal, has the minister just placed Northern
Ireland directly into the firing line between the UK and the EU?
I think first of all what he's trying to do is to use the
Good Friday Agreement as a sort of political human shield to
take them through the divorce negotiations.
By linking the border with any wider trade deal,
the government stands accused of using the peace process in
Northern Ireland as leverage to secure concessions from
Europe for the rest of the UK.
First, they don't want the questions of Ireland settled as part of
the first order issues that the EU 27 have set out and that the
Taoiseach was quite successful in having framed in that way.
And to use us as a political human shield to get through those
first negotiations and then in effect treat the Irish situation and
the Agreement as a hostage through the subsequent negotiations
on trade and the single market and the customs union,
I think is downright irresponsible.
There is an irony, according to Alliance's Stephen Farry, that
Brussels seems more attuned to Northern Ireland concerns
We do have some very strong powerful friends across the European Union.
The level of attention of the UK Government in Northern Ireland
has been disappointing.
We haven't had the same level of engagement from the
UK Prime Minister in terms of understanding our position.
And there isn't, in particular,
the real understanding of the threat to the Good Friday Agreement
from the UK government, indeed, who are one of the core signatories.
Ireland is the country that could suffer most from Brexit which
explains the Irish Government's unprecedented charm offensive
But the border solution is beyond its control.
And with the UK and Europe unable even to agree a talks agenda,
the prospect of no deal, first mooted by the Prime Minister
in January, remains a real possibility.
While I am sure a positive agreement can be reached, I am equally
clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.
I'm very concerned when I hear British politicians and
political leaders speak in terms of no deal.
No deal would be catastrophic for the UK,
for Ireland and for the entire European Union.
But no deal rather than a bad deal is now
a Conservative manifesto pledge.
So even if a special deal awaits Northern Ireland in Europe,
it may never be implemented if the wider talks fail.
In that context, we would then default to
a very hard Brexit for Northern Ireland and indeed
Northern Ireland would be more adversely affected than any
other part of the UK and we would see it affect a hard border on
the island of Ireland and all of the political and economic
implications that arise from that.
Theresa May hasn't said what an acceptable deal would look like.
Questions were kept to a minimum on her recent Balmoral visit and
no Conservative minister, not even the Northern Ireland Secretary
James Brokenshire, would speak to Spotlight.
Others who fear the consequences cling to a remote hope that
Brexit might not happen.
Is Brexit inevitable?
Till we see the final terms, why make up our minds finally?
Does that mean we can change it? I have no idea.
But what I do know is anyone who goes into the detail of this
negotiation, and now we're going to be going into the detail,
the facts, right, they're going to find that there are many,
many challenges along the way and really tough choices for the UK.
But far from going soft on Brexit, supporters have hardened
their resolve in response to tough talk from Europe.
This attempt to interfere and bully, as they seem to be doing,
goes down very badly with people here. They've made a choice.
They made that choice last year
and we now have to implement that choice.
And the way to implement that choice is to get the best deal for
And even in his Dail speech, Michel Barnier left
no room for doubt about the future relationship with the UK.
I regret that Brexit is happening now.
I would have liked to have seen the UK staying in Europe with
Ireland and all the 26 other member states, but we are where we are.
Brexit is coming but what about Barnier's border?
It's not only the new EU-UK frontier,
it's the battle line for the bitter negotiations to come.
As the Brexit negotiations begin and the border tops the agenda, Jim Fitzpatrick travels to Brussels in search of answers.