binding agreements that the UK has signed ...
what do they actually prohibit or demand with respect to the border?
The Good Friday Agreement / Belfast Agreement / British-Irish Agreement of 1998 can be downloaded from either the Irish government website or the UK government website. It is titled "The Agreement"
It has two parts:
- a multi-party agreement between political parties of Northern Ireland and
- an international agreement between "the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and "the Government of Ireland"
The UK obviously is a signatory to the second part, not the first. However the second part commits its signatories "to support, and
where appropriate implement, the provisions of the Multi-Party
This agreement discusses cross-border cooperation extensively but there is no explicit mention of border arrangements that I can find.
Much of the wording is open to interpretation and I would assume that the British-Irish Council would be the body that makes these interpretations.
For example, here is a section on security:
1. The participants note that the development of a peaceful environment
on the basis of this agreement can and should mean a normalisation of
security arrangements and practices.
2. The British Government will make progress towards the objective of as
early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern
Ireland, consistent with the level of threat and with a published overall
strategy, dealing with:
(i) the reduction of the numbers and role of the Armed Forces deployed
in Northern Ireland to levels compatible with a normal peaceful society;
(ii) the removal of security installations;
(iii) the removal of emergency powers in Northern Ireland; and
(iv) other measures appropriate to and compatible with a normal
"normal security arrangements" would presumably include normal security arrangements at the border as well as those elsewhere.
It can certainly be argued that border-arrangements between countries such as Norway and its EU neighbours are "normal".
If so, the presence of border posts for customs checks is not explicitly prevented by the agreement.
one lesson from Norway is that even with the Nordic country's close ties to the bloc, border checks are necessary. Cars entering Norway at Ørje are stopped and drivers asked for their destination and the purpose of their visit. The border post was recently extended and rebuilt with new barriers and cameras. Staffing has also been increased.
We could also look at borders between, for example, Canada and the USA. Generally in the wider world it is "normal" for border posts to exist and for checks to be made at borders.
The above is somewhat irrelevant because the Irish government, the British government and the EU have all stated that they have no intention of creating new infrastructure at the border.
These declarations are not treaties or signed agreements but they are a clear indication of current political intent.
This government is committed to the Belfast Agreement and to do everything in our power to ensure no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
In planning for the real possibility of a no deal Brexit, the Government’s
approach will continue to be guided by the same priorities:
- ensuring the best possible outcome for trade and the economy
- the protection of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,
including the principle of consent and there being no Hard Border
So far as I know, this term is not defined in any international treaty and so is somewhat vague and ambiguous.
It is likely that people will interpret this differently. In most cases any kind of physical infrastructure at or near the border, perhaps even so little as a traffic camera, is likely to be regarded as constituting a hard border.
What does the Good Friday Agreement say about a hard border?
A lot less than you might think. The only place in which it alludes to infrastructure at the border is in the section on security.
During the Troubles there were heavily fortified army barracks, police stations and watchtowers along the border. They were frequently attacked by Republican paramilitaries.
Part of the peace deal involved the UK government agreeing to a process of removing those installations in what became known as "demilitarisation".
The agreement states that "the development of a peaceful environment... can and should mean a normalisation of security arrangements and practices."
The government committed to "as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland, consistent with the level of threat".
That included "the removal of security installations". That is as far as the text goes.
There is no explicit commitment to never harden the border, and there is nothing about customs posts or regulatory controls.
None of the above means that any of the parties involved think it would be a good idea to have a hard border - whatever that may mean. So far as I know, all are committed to avoiding it and to supporting the spirit of the agreement and not just the letters of it.