The Northern Ireland peace process could be put at risk if the government fails to reach a “sensible agreement” with the EU over the border, a former head of the diplomatic service has warned.
Lord Jay of Ewelme, told HuffPost UK ministers needed to explain “pretty quickly” the details of how a soft border with the EU could be maintained if the UK leaves the customs union and single market.
The UK government has said it does not want to see a return to border posts and physical checks and has suggested technology could be used to track the flow of goods.
But Lord Jay warned ministers needed to do some “pretty hard thinking on exactly what form that could take”.
He said: “I like what the British government is saying about the need to maintain a soft border but it’s very unclear how that would be done if we leave the customs union.
“I don’t know whether it’s possible. So far the government has been sensible in saying there needs to be a maintenance of a soft border, but it hasn’t been very forthcoming in saying it how it will be achieved. That’s the big unknown at the moment.
“It is a risk that if you don’t come to some sensible agreement on the border there is a risk to the peace process which would be extremely important to avoid.
“Having the external border of the EU in between Ireland, North and South, is not a good situation to be in. It’s going to have to be managed.”
The House of Lords will debate a committee report on the issue of the border later today.
Lord Jay, a leading member of the committee who will open the debate, said it was “scandalous” that the issue of the Northern Ireland border was not addressed more fully during the referendum campaign.
“I think the border is the difficult issue if we leave the customs union, which the government at the moment seems keen on doing, then there are some very difficult issues that are going to have to be resolved,” he said.
“It’s terrible important that we do that because that gives an assurance to both communities that the border will not become an issue that leads to an increase in violence along it.”
The crossbench peer, who ran the Foreign Office’s diplomatic service 2002-2006, said there was not an “immediate risk” of violence but the possibility could not be “ignored”.
David Davis will also update MPs on the latest round of Brexit talks today.
Lord Jay said he has been “encouraged” by reports of progress made on the border issue “which sets Ireland rather apart from every other aspect of the negotiations which as far as I can tell there wasn’t any progress”.
And he said it was important the issue of Ireland was not “held hostage” to the progress of the rest of the talks.
“There was some suggestion, I don’t know whether it was true, I hope it wasn’t true, that the British government was trying in some way to use Ireland as a lever.
“But I haven’t seen any evidence of that and I hope it’s not the case. It would be immensely bad it it were true.”
He added it was “lucky” that the lead Brexit negotiator for the EU was Michel Barnier, who thanks to his previous work in the European Commission had a “better understanding than many people in the EU” about how difficult the issue of Ireland could be.