It seems the wheels have hit the tarmac on one of the key Brexit conundrums.
All sides in this process are working so hard to find a deal that avoids a hard border in Ireland – but if they fail, and there is “no-deal”, then by default there must be a hard border.
The EU Commission has finally spelt that out explicitly.
Speaking in Brussels, commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “If you would like to push me and speculate on what might happen in a no deal scenario in Ireland, I think it’s pretty obvious – you will have a hard border.”
You could almost hear the screams from Dublin as he continued: “And our commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and everything that we have been doing for years with our tools, instruments and programmes will have to take, inevitably, into account this fact.”
He was drawing the logical conclusion to the position of those proposing that the Brexit deal must include a backstop to avoid a hard border – that if there is no deal, then a hard Irish border is unavoidable.
But the Irish and the British – and Brussels until now – have always said they would never impose a hard border because of their commitment to the Good Friday peace agreement.
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney appeared uncomfortable when asked by Sky News about the comments from Brussels.
He said: “The Irish government will not support the reemergence of border infrastructure on this island. We are not planning for it in no deal Brexit planning.”
Sky’s Ireland correspondent Stephen Murphy asked if the Irish government position that there would be no Irish border was no longer credible given the comments from Brussels.
“No, I don’t,” was Mr Coveney’s blunt reply.
So the Irish position is, apparently, not a direct contradiction of what Mr Schinas said in Brussels.
As all this unravelled, the Irish prime minister hinted that a UK-Irish bilateral deal may be unavoidably necessary to avoid a hard border if there is no deal, adding that the backstop cannot be given up on in return for a promise that “it’ll be alright on the night”.
The natural response from Brexiteers to all this (as it has been for some time) is along the lines of: ‘If you need to do a deal to prevent a hard border, then do a bilateral one and remove the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement (the one that the UK parliament rejected).
‘Or if you say you will never impose a hard border anyway, then why are we having this argument?’
But wouldn’t a bilateral deal also need to include a backstop (closely aligning the UK to the EU) if no other arrangement could be found? Back to square one?
And it seems to me that this could never be resolved with a purely bilateral deal between the UK and Ireland anyway because the border in question would be an external EU border.
Surely Brussels will need to demand that Dublin enforces one of the EU’s external borders? Is that sort of what the commission spokesman was beginning to suggest in his latest comments?
Equally, would Brussels perhaps insist that no deal side deals with the UK (to ensure smooth operations at Dover) are dependent on UK co-operation to solve the Irish problem?
So why is all this border stuff an issue? Because, simply, if the UK has separate trading and customs regulations and standards from the EU (say to meet those necessary for a trade deal with US), then checks become necessary on all borders between the UK and the EU.
But up against that is the implicit commitment in the Good Friday peace agreement never to have a hard border on the island of Ireland.
An Irish government statement sums up just how serious all this is.
“We will not accept a hard border on this island and therefore we are not planning for one,” it said.
“This will be more difficult to achieve without the Withdrawal Agreement and would require very difficult discussions with our EU partners.
“Working out suitable customs and trade arrangements compatible with our EU membership will require detailed discussion with the Commission, while the UK will also need to live up to its responsibilities.
“We are under no illusions about how challenging that would be.”
It is alarmingly clear now that an issue which was hardly mentioned in the referendum campaign – Ireland and Britain; the history and the violence – now presents the hardest and most troubling part of the quest to deliver Brexit.
(c) Sky News 2019: Why the Irish border is the biggest obstacle to delivering Brexit